Secretary of State Warren Christopher is restarting the Middle East peace process. His tour of the region broke the paralysis that set in when his predecessor, James A. Baker III, left the State Department with his top team to try to rescue President Bush's re-election campaign. Mr. Christopher is picking up a Baker initiative, but making it his own. He visited Beirut; Mr. Baker did not. He very carefully stated, just before visiting Israel, that the United States is willing to intervene "as a full partner" in the talks. The Bush-Baker role, while vital, was merely as a "catalyst."
The Arabs wanted the "full partner" role and Israel did not. In the code language of the Middle East, it suggests a U.S. willingness to lean on Israel to make concessions. The previous argument for a more arms-length American approach was to indicate a tacit Arab recognition of Israel. Mr. Christopher is not retreating from that position.
Mr. Christopher's first success came in Damascus. Breaking the Arab solidarity line that Israel's deportation of Hamas activists is a very serious offense preventing resumption of talks, President Hafez el-Assad of Syria showed more enthusiasm than ever before. According to U.S. officials, he agreed to let all remaining Syrian Jews who wish emigrate to Israel -- for which the U.S. had been pressing. The Syrian position undercuts the PLO, which is holding back the Palestinian delegation, presumably because Palestinian public opinion in occupied territories wants the 396 remaining deportees returned first. In the words of Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh, this issue is "a thorn," an irritation but not an insuperable hurdle.
Syria's motives are not hard to fathom. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the refusal of Russia to pick up its world role, Mr. Assad has been seeking better relations with the United States. The verbal fencing with Israel last year convinced him that there really is bargaining room on Israel's side for return of part or all of the Golan Heights, Mr. Assad's chief goal. Syrian hegemony in Lebanon does not seem an obstacle to Syrian-Israeli accord if the Israel-Lebanon border is quiet. It will not escape Palestinian attention that Mr. Assad is pursuing Syria's national interests and his own, not theirs or pan-Arab rhetoric.
So Mr. Christopher had scored some points even before visiting Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with whom he had previously turned the deportee issue from categorical absolutes into numbers and dates which are negotiable. Israeli opinion last year distrusted Mr. Bush and welcomed a Clinton presidency. Knowing that, Mr. Christopher has made it clear that the new administration has picked up the ball and is running with it.