Middle East Momentum

July 22, 1992

At midpoint in Secretary of State James Baker's latest swing through the Middle East, the atmosphere has suddenly turned hopeful for the resumption of peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The primary catalyst is Israel's new prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who walked on a welcome mat in Cairo yesterday that was never available to his hardline predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak said he at last would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, by visiting Israel. Though no date was set, this speaks well for Mr. Baker's efforts to rekindle diplomatic momentum.

What is cause for optimism is a commonality of interests among most of the parties involved. A Middle East breakthrough would be an election-year bonanza for the Bush administration as Mr. Baker prepares to leave the State Department to take over the president's re-election campaign. Mr. Bush is likely to release $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel when Mr. Rabin comes to Washington in September. He had withheld such financial support in protest against Mr. Shamir's aggressive settlement-building on the West Bank.

Palestinians also have a compelling reason for seeing how much autonomy and what curbs on Israeli settlements they can aim for in peace talks now that Mr. Shamir's Likud government is out of power. Prime Minister Rabin has promised to limit these settlements -- a distinct change in policy -- but is insistent on expanding a few sites vital to Israeli defense. Mr. Baker is dealing with this sensitive issue through ambiguity and new phraseology. "Security installations are something that we view differently from settlements," he said in Damascus.

The secretary of state will have a better reading on prospects after meeting today with Syrian strongman Hafez Assad, whose yearnings for recovery of the Golan Heights do not always coincide with his professed support for the Palestinians. King Hussein of Jordan, who conferred with Mr. Baker in Amman, was typically cautious and waiting for other governments to make the running.

Middle East diplomacy usually proceeds by fits and starts, with dramatic urgency punctuating long periods of uneventful probing. Mr. Rabin's accession to power through the Labor Party's election victory, his need for U.S. financial support, his willingness to compromise in peace negotiations, his concern for his country's economic condition -- all these suggest the change of government in Israel comes at a propitious moment. Egypt is always looking to escape from its lonely position as the only Arab state to recognize Israel. Syria would like a deal, if it strengthens its position viz a viz Iraq. And for Secretary Baker and President Bush, real progress toward peace would be traceable to U.S. leadership in the Persian Gulf war.

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