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NEWS ANALYSIS : Mideast Quest: It's Clinton's Turn : Diplomacy: His Administration, like predecessors, is seeking peace. Conditions may be ripe for success.


WASHINGTON — Three months after it took office with promises of new directions in foreign policy that would emphasize American competitiveness in the global economy, the Clinton Administration is preparing to immerse itself in one of the oldest, most elusive diplomatic quests: peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

With Clinton's emphasis on the global economy, many had expected Washington's relationship with Japan to rise to the top and the Middle East--which had consumed, and frustrated, American diplomats for almost half a century--to receive less attention.

Before he joined the National Security Council as its top Middle East specialist, Martin Indyk remarked that it seemed certain Warren Christopher's first trip as secretary of state would be to Japan, not the Middle East.

But Indyk was wrong.

Christopher made an extended tour of the Middle East in February and did not get to Tokyo until this month. Even then, the primary purpose for his trip was a meeting to discuss economic aid to Russia.

Administration officials are frank to acknowledge that focusing on the Mideast peace process offers few potential rewards in terms of the economic issues that Clinton has placed at the top of his agenda. But they--like their predecessors--see it as an overriding issue.

And they insist that circumstances have handed them a priceless opportunity.

Like all of his recent predecessors, Christopher is expressing high optimism as he prepares for the resumption Tuesday of the complex, interlocking negotiations between Israel and Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

"Now there is an opportunity for the parties to work together and make tangible progress," Christopher said recently. "If the parties are prepared to do their part and to narrow the gaps, we will certainly do ours and play the role of a full partner."

This time, many Middle East experts agree, conditions seem ripe for success. This time, they say, the parties must realize that their only hope for security and economic progress lies in making peace.

"I doubt if many Middle East specialists would argue with the suggestion that Russia and perhaps Japan are the two most important subjects right now," said William B. Quandt, a former NSC staffer who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But this is no time to reach the conclusion that the Middle East is a dry hole.

"There may never be a better chance to make some breakthroughs, particularly on the Syria-Israel front but also on the Israel-Palestinian front. This is a chance to actually achieve something."

Maybe so. But those optimistic refrains are almost as common in Middle East diplomacy as the endemic violence that both underlines the need for accommodation and poisons the atmosphere for its achievement.

As deputy secretary of state in the Jimmy Carter Administration, Christopher was on hand for the 1978 Camp David conference, which registered the most dramatic success in the history of American efforts to mediate a Middle East settlement. The Israel-Egypt treaty that grew out of that meeting remains the only peace agreement between Israel and any Arab nation. Christopher clearly would like to repeat that heady performance.

Camp David aside, however, Middle East diplomacy has produced far more frustration than elation for American policy-makers, though the region has remained at or near the top of the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities since the end of World War II.

There is no clear and easy explanation why American concern about the Arab-Israeli conflict has remained more or less constant while other regions and other issues have come and gone.

Regional conflicts are dangerous, of course, but not nearly so dangerous as the decades during which the United States and the Soviet Union stared at each other over arsenals of nuclear weapons that could incinerate the planet. Middle East oil makes the region important to the global economy but there are other, more pressing, economic issues.

Similarly, as the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the region is close to the heart of the observant. But religion, alone, cannot explain the primacy of the area.

In the 15 years since Camp David, the American government has little to show for its emphasis on the Middle East and its problems. The Berlin Wall fell and communism faded in that period. The Cold War rivalries that once seemed to shape America's Middle East policy dwindled away. But the region never lost its fascination for U.S. policy-makers.

As secretary of state for most of the Ronald Reagan Administration, George P. Shultz crisscrossed the region, promoting a full-blown American proposal, which, had it been accepted by the Arabs and Israelis, would have smoothed over decades of controversy by giving each side some, but not all, of its objectives. As he shuttled from Damascus to Jerusalem to Amman, Shultz recited this mantra: "Nobody has said 'no.' "

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