WASHINGTON -- President Bush is sending Secretary of State James A. Baker III back to the Middle East to keep alive prospects for Arab-Israeli peace despite the aftershocks of the Persian Gulf war.
Since Mr. Baker's last trip in early March, neither Arab states nor Israel nor the Palestinians have made a gesture toward compromise, although U.S. officials have held private consultations with all of them.
Israel, in fact, has given the appearance of digging in its heels. Its government has refused to meet with the same Palestinians who met with Mr. Baker, since they claim to represent the Palestine Liberation Organization. And Housing Minister Ariel Sharon has advanced plans to settle thousands of more Jews in the occupied territories despite strong U.S. opposition.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler declined to say yesterday whether the effort was progressing, calling the trip "yet another step in [Mr. Baker's] step-by-step process."
"I'm not aware of a single trip he's taken just for going through the motions," she said.
His itinerary includes Israel, Egypt and Syria, though he is due also to meet Saudi officials and possibly also Jordan's foreign minister en route.
Both the United States and Egypt hope that Jordan's King Hussein can be drawn into a constructive role, perhaps as a representative of the Palestinians.
Officials and diplomats have floated the idea of a regional peace conference, possibly co-sponsored by the United States and Soviet Union with President Bush present at the outset. While this would provide the "umbrella" some Arab states have insisted on for dealing with Israel, "the concept of quiet diplomacy is where everyone's head is at the moment," a senior official said.