JERUSALEM -- In the midst of Secretary of State James A. Baker III's long negotiations with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a Shamir aide began complaining about a statement made by the Saudis nine months ago.
"I am not here to talk about history," said an exasperated Baker. "I'm here to talk about the future."
Baker may be the only one. After two months of shuttling across the Middle East on four different trips, Baker has learned the hard way that the Persian Gulf war has not yet given birth to a new era in Arab-Israeli relations. Arabs and Israelis are still much more preoccupied with making sure that Baker cannot blame them if his peace initiative fails, as they are sure it will, than with really reaching out sincerely to each other.
No wonder that the Baker-Bush peace process is turning into a classic cultural clash between American and Middle Eastern instincts.
Baker and Bush are convinced that the gulf war changed things. They want actions and agreements that will demonstrate quickly that the war achieved something beyond simply destroying Iraq and its army and restoring the emir of Kuwait. But most Arab and Israeli leaders are wary of talk about a new order and want to go slowly, as though they have all the time in the world.
Despite the obstacles and delaying tactics that they have encountered, Bush and Baker still have no intention of giving up, although they seem to recognize that adjustments in their strategy are needed if it is to produce a peace conference. Baker said that he and Bush would sit down today in the Oval Office and take stock of what they have and where they should go next.
After his four trips, Baker says that he has obtained general agreement among Arab leaders, Israelis, and the Palestinians on many things: That there should be a peace conference to promote direct Arab-Israeli negotiations, that the Saudis and other gulf Arabs will attend as observers, and that the Palestinians are likely to be represented by a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
But the two issues that they still disagree on is the role the United Nations will play in a peace conference and how the conference will be structured.
The Syrians insist that the United Nations sponsor and run the conference, while the Israelis say that the United Nations can play no role. The Syrians also want the conference to be an ongoing affair so that the co-sponsors and observers can be called on for help if the parties get stuck -- and to assign blame if anyone becomes obstructionist.
Israeli analysts say that Shamir is very wary about entering into any negotiations because he knows they will immediately lead to the question of trading land for peace, which he rejects. And President Hafez Assad of Syria is very wary about entering into any negotiations because he knows that they will immediately lead to his having to drop his war with Israel, which justifies his regime, his army, and his one-man rule.
Administration officials seem to realize that if they are to entice those two to the bargaining table they are, in effect, going to have to try to get them to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Logical arguments and gentle persuasion clearly have not been enough.