Baker in Mid-Mission

April 28, 1991

The suspension of Secretary of State James A. Baker III's shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East upon the death of his mother allows a look at what he has achieved. His effort has been noble, but the Middle East will not reform itself just because Mr. Baker arrived on the scene. It is the same Middle East that thwarted such peacemakers as Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter.

Yes, everyone wants a peace conference, but . . . but Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, our very good friends for whom the United States sacrificed its young, will not attend; but Israel insists that a conference not have United Nations auspices and Syria insists that it must; but the U.S. and Israel boycott the PLO while the Palestinians with whom Mr. Baker talks insist on its role; but Israel starts new settlements which can only provoke Arab negativism; but the U.S. says that Israel should trade land for peace, which senior Israeli leaders refuse.

President Bush pronounced a "reason for optimism," even as the mission was being suspended. Certainly, none of the parties wishes to be stamped as the reason the peace conference will not be held. But their posturing seems designed more for appearance's sake than for substantial results.

The reasons for the effort were the lessons from the gulf crisis that the world can achieve a good end when Moscow and Washington agree, and that certain Arab states appeared to conclude as Egypt had before that the Palestinian sore must be healed, even if that requires their own genuine and permanent acceptance of Israel.

Syria and Saudi Arabia may be backing away now that the intra-Arab crisis is over. Israel is afraid to make concessions, and labyrinthine Israeli politics dictate that Mr. Banker negotiate separately even with members of the same party. But the outline of a peace process that emerges is encouraging. It would start with a regional conference, under U.S. and Soviet auspices, to launch parallel bilateral negotiations between Israel and Palestinians and between Israel and Arab states, with everything up for discussion.

After his mother's funeral, Mr. Baker is entitled to a little rest. Then his mission will be worth resuming. Not that prospects are rosy. But it would be wrong for the effort to fail just because it was not pursued to the end.

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