WASHINGTON -- With the increasing likelihood of a Mideast peace conference, the Bush administration is wrestling with the question of whether Presidents Bush and Mikhail S. Gorbachev should open it, thereby dramatically escalating its importance and political risks.
"We're thinking about this in terms of arrangements that would best make the conference work," an administration official said yesterday.
"We haven't reached any final determination."
The accepted wisdom for months, encouraged by U.S. officials, held that the conference would be conducted at the foreign minister's level, with Secretary of State James A. Baker III and his Soviet counterpart, Boris D. Pankin, presiding.
The White House traditionally casts a jaundiced eye on requests for a president to do something, so as to avoid embroiling him in unnecessary controversies.
But the current Mideast peace effort, launched by the president himself in an address to Congress after the Persian Gulf war, hardly fits the usual pattern.
From all evidence, it is a close Bush-Baker partnership in which both men have invested influence and prestige.
Early in Mr. Baker's arduous shuttle diplomacy, Mr. Bush half-jokingly spoke of a Baker peace plan that, if it advanced far enough, could then be dubbed the Bush plan.
That time is fast approaching. In recent weeks, Mr. Bush has assumed a highly visible role. He took on the powerful pro-Israel lobby to delay loan guarantees for Israel and called on the U.N. General Assembly to repeal its resolution equating Zionism with racism.
"For the first time in history, the vision of Israelis sitting with their Arab neighbors to talk peace is a real prospect. Nothing should be done that might interfere with this prospect," Mr. Bush said at one point.
Arguing for Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev to preside is the belief that this would rivet more attention on the event.
It would underscore their joint conviction that the hatreds and strategic rivalry that made the Middle East a flash point for decades have no place in the "new world order."
It would also give Mr. Gorbachev a welcome re-entry onto the world stage.
This attention would reinforce the psychological impact U.S. officials hope the conference will have on the Arab and Israeli players and would increase pressure on them to show greater flexibility.
Such pressure could probably be brought to bear successfully only on heads of government or heads of state.
The bulk of Mr. Baker's shuttle dealings have been at this level.
The downside is that this meeting won't produce actual agreements. It is intended to open the way to direct peace talks between Israel and Arab governments and between Israel and Palestinians, as well as broader talks on regional problems such as arms control.
This is no small achievement, but it offers nothing tangible, only the start of what promises to be a long and difficult set of negotiations.
"The White House may be reluctant to have President Bush identified with a negotiation whose success is by no means guaranteed merely by the fact that the parties are ready to turn up at a conference," said Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.
According to this argument, it is better to enlist Mr. Bush much later, when an actual settlement is within reach.
There is also the question of who would show up.
While Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is seen a likely to want to sit face-to-face with Arab leaders, there are strong doubts that Syrian President Hafez el Assad would do likewise.
His absence, moreover, would discourage Jordan's King Hussein and Lebanese President Elias Hrawi.
A final problem is protocol. Mr. Shamir's actual counterpart as head of government in Syria, for instance, is Prime Minister Mahmoud Zubi, who has played no visible role in the peace process.
For the moment, the question of participants is subordinated to the final efforts to get all parties committed to the conference in more than principle.
Still hanging is the question of who will represent Palestinians in a joint delegation with Jordan.
Mr. Baker is likely to try to work this out in his eighth trip to the region next week, as well as to get final agreement on letters of assurance in which each side is trying to extract the most favorable interpretation of U.S. policy.