WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III arrives in Jerusalem today on a surge of diplomatic energy and political tension.
It could be his final overseas trip before the U.S. election, a last hurrah in the region where he has devoted much of his energy and taken his biggest risks.
He thus needs to give the Middle East peace process enough of a jolt to sustain it through the fall while, as widely expected, he takes charge of President Bush's re-election bid.
The Baker team aims to put ties with Israel's new Labor-led government on solid ground and get Israelis and Arabs, through gestures, words and plans, to set the scene for rapid progress when negotiations resume.
Obvious actions include, but are not limited to, a freeze on Israeli settlements and lifting the Arab boycott of companies that trade with Israel.
"If people want to invigorate the process, there's no shortage of options to choose from," a senior administration official said. "What's needed are less new ideas than evidence of a commitment to reconciliation."
"We hope to get a dynamic going where everyone will do and say things that they've been resisting," the official said.
Major Mideast progress by November may not yield easily measurable political gains for President Bush. But it would reinforce the impression of foreign policy competence that he needs to offset domestic-policy disarray and a stalled economy.
A safer Mideast would underscore the end of the Cold War and ease Americans' anxiety both about Israel and long-term oil supplies. It also would offer a tangible result of the diplomacy surrounding last year's Persian Gulf war.
The regional atmosphere awaiting Mr. Baker is the best in years. Israel froze new contracts on building in the occupied territories this week, a first step in curbing settlements.
Egypt, reacting quickly to what it called a sign of Israeli seriousness about peace unseen during the Likud years, arranged for President Hosni Mubarak to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Egypt Tuesday.
And the Israeli military and Palestinians reached agreement Friday to end a potentially ugly confrontation at An-Najah University in Nablus.
This marks a sharp contrast to previous Baker trips, when he frequently encountered new settlement activity in Israel and such resistance on all sides as to make extracting compromises a tooth-pulling exercise.
"Things could move fast," said Robert Satloff, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He cited a unique set of overlapping interests: the Bush-Baker political drive, Mr. Rabin's push to end strife in the occupied territories and a desire by Palestinians inside and outside the territories to move quickly on an autonomy agreement with Israel.
Beyond the relatively minor Israeli steps taken so far, one Arab diplomat sees a psychological boost from statements by Mr. Rabin acknowledging the need to improve treatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
"There's a change in the mind-set," the diplomat said.
In Israel, the Baker team will stress reorganizing and fixing a date for the resumption of bilateral talks, set for Rome, and preparing for Mr. Rabin's visit to President Bush early next month.
A priority for Israel will be securing loan guarantees denied to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir because he rejected a settlement freeze. One senior official predicted the Baker team would only discuss loan guarantees "in broad-brush terms" and not complete the deal until Mr. Rabin comes here. Congress would be unlikely to act before September.
Mr. Rabin has raised obstacles to a loan-guarantee deal on terms previously spelled out by the United States. While pledging to halt the Likud drive for a greater Israel, he would continue settling along the "confrontation lines" outside Jerusalem and along the Golan Heights and the Jordan River valley.
By definition, however, these so-called security settlements might be negotiable in exchange for security guarantees from the Arabs, a U.S. official said.
Mr. Baker is expected to press Palestinians to look harder for areas of potential agreement in autonomy talks. Their previous proposal was dismissed by Israel as a blueprint for a Palestinian state.
Few expect an end to the intifada, the 4 1/2 -year-old Palestinian uprising. "Anybody who says he can order an end to the intifada is lying," an Arab diplomat said. "It will stop when the ugly face of the occupation eases."
Amid the raised expectations, analysts see a fear in the Arab world and particularly in Syria that the Bush administration, politically weak at home, will bend over backward to help a newly cooperative Israeli government and that Arab interests may be downplayed.
This nervousness is heightened by the clear Rabin priority of getting a deal with the Palestinians, something that could isolate Syria and Lebanon.