Washington. -- It has been clear from the outset that loan guarantees were not the issue between the Bush administration and the government of Israel, nor was the proposed 120-day delay in submitting the issue to the U.S. Congress.
Problems like these are routinely compromised by governments without arousing the curious intensity the Bush administration has brought to this issue.
A Time magazine correspondent sensed this intensity when Mr. Bush walked into the White House press room with ''the stony fighter-pilot look in his eyes, not unlike the determination he exhibited the morning after Iraq invaded Kuwait.'' But Israel is not Iraq and Yitzhak Shamir is not Saddam Hussein. He is rather the constitutional leader of a democratic ally.
Newsweek magazine described Mr. Bush as ''furious.''
He described himself as ''one lonely little guy down here'' fighting off ''powerful political forces.'' But that ''lonely little guy'' is the 6-foot 3-inch president of the United States and the ''powerful political forces'' were just Americans talking to Congress the way Americans always do on contested issues.
When the administration decided to go public with the housing-loan debate, the issue escalated and took on a life of its own. Some saw it as a test of wills. Some saw it as the administration's effort to prove its ''even-handedness'' to Palestinians. Some saw it as reflecting Mr. Bush's personal antipathy toward Mr. Shamir.
One anonymous official guessed out loud that it was ''as much a matter of personality as of policy.'' Another correspondent observed that Mr. Bush's relations with Mr. Shamir had been ''icily formal'' from the beginning.
Newsweek tried to explain what was happening in terms of the president's background: ''Bush comes from an East Coast foreign-policy establishment whose members have often felt that interests in the Middle East were being sacrificed to domestic politics. When he took over the Oval Office, according to his friends, he decided on a tougher line. The atmospheric change was evident from the outset.''
But, as Secretary of State James Baker left Jerusalem last week, it became clear that more had changed than the atmosphere.
The administration wants a total freeze on new Israeli settlements as a price for U.S. loan guarantees. But it didn't want to talk about it until after the planned Mideast peace conference began in October. So the administration sought to delay sending the request to Congress because it feared a searing debate would lead Arabs or Israelis or both to refuse to attend that conference.
The demand for a freeze on new settlements may be seen by many as tantamount to a demand that Israel relinquish claims to the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Is the United States really making this demand? Has it become a party to the peace conference, not simply a mediator?
The loan guarantees offer fresh evidence of the priority the Bush administration gives to the Arab-Israeli peace process. But it still is not clear why Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker think the conference has a reasonable chance of succeeding.
The objective circumstances for a comprehensive peace in the area have not improved. There are still too many violent dictators, too many violent fanatics. There is still too little respect for human rights.
Saddam Hussein is still in power. So are the Jordanian and Palestinian leaders who ardently supported his invasion of Kuwait. Yasser Arafat still heads the PLO, and the PLO still terrorizes its opponents -- or tries hard to do so. And so do various dissident PLO leaders.
Hamas, the fundamentalist organization in Gaza, and the Iranian Hezbollah are still active. They not only oppose peace talks, they threaten to kill anyone who attends them.
Syria's Hafez el Assad is still there and while Mr. Baker and President Bush wooed him in hopes of bringing him to the peace table, he continued the consolidation of power in Lebanon. The same day Mr. Baker was in Jerusalem urging Mr. Shamir not to be difficult, the parliament of occupied Lebanon ratified an agreement giving Syria the ''right'' to intervene in Lebanon's politics.
Democracy, which is sweeping Eastern Europe, has made no progress in the Middle East. Yet American pressure for reform and democratization in this region are strangely absent.
One wonders why the Bush administration has so much interest in imposing peace and so little interest in encouraging pluralism and democracy, without which peace is improbable.
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated columnist.