If James A. Baker III's tour of Middle East capitals is any indication, his boss will hardly be facing a triumphal trip when his turn around the region comes. Despite some signs of encouragement in the new Mideast political landscape, President Bush's Secretary of State is finding that it will take some hard selling by Bush himself if there's to be any hope of finally fashioning peace out of seemingly endless wars.

True, Baker found that the U. S. has gained considerable leverage throughout the Middle East. Iraq, Israel's top military threat, is vanquished, while Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat is likely to be less of an obstacle because he is in disgrace among the Arab states with clout. Most important, the war against Saddam Hussein has greatly boosted U. S. credibility with both Israel and the Arabs. "The window of opportunity," says Ali Johany, a leading Saudi economist, "is now in fact a rather large, open gate."

Baker seized the opportunity with a novel two-track approach, which America's Arab allies have accepted in principle. Baker would like to see Israel and Arab neighbors such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan begin steps toward normalization of relations at the same time as the Jewish state and Palestinians separately sort out their grievances.

Baker's ability to capitalize on America's new prestige in the region was dramatically evident in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his mission. In meetings with officials from Egypt, Syria, and the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Baker set the seal on an alliance linking the U. S. and the victorious core of the Arab world.

STRONGER HAND. Those accomplishments are only the most preliminary steps on the road to peace, however. Baker is already disappointed that Arab allies--particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia--did not reward the American war effort by publicly signing on to a normalization process with Israel. Instead, when Saudi-American talks turned to Israel, the Saudis, showing continued sensitivity, insisted that only Baker, King Fahd, and two of his brothers be present.

Baker also received little immediate satisfaction during his meetings with Palestinians and Israelis. The Palestinians laughed off his advice that they shed Arafat and deal directly with Israel. Baker also failed to win Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's agreement to begin wooing the Palestinians in the occupied territories by easing tough security and economic restrictions.

But Baker's trip, which was clearly exploratory, hasn't been a major disappointment. "It's significant and positive that none of the parties closed any doors," says A. Richard Norton, a Middle East specialist at the International Peace Academy in New York.

U. S. officials feel they have strengthened their hand with Israel. In the coming years, the tiny nation will need plenty of economic support for resettling hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews. In addition, the U. N.-sanctioned battle against Iraq gives new force to Security Council Resolution 242, with its territory-for-peace formula. "By God, sooner or later, someone in the Israeli government has got to blink and accept" land for peace, says one U. S. official.

There are signs of moderation in Israel--even within the hardline, ruling Likud party. While Iraqi Scuds were raining on Israel last month, Foreign Minister David Levy announced in the Knesset that he would even be willing to negotiate with the West Bank Palestinians, who stood on rooftops cheering the Iraqi attack. Says one Israeli diplomat: "The fact Levy wasn't lynched outright is encouraging."

'BIG UNCLE.' Meanwhile, the PLO, not wanting to be left out, is scrambling for an entree into the U. S. efforts. On Mar. 13, Bassam Abu Sharif, a PLO official who has floated trial balloons for Arafat, made conciliatory comments about the borders of an eventual Palestinian state and the composition of a Palestinian negotiating team--but then backed away from that position. A Jordanian-Palestinian delegation is possible, despite King Hussein's sympathy for Iraq.

Although Baker is going slow, stressing that the U. S. is not out to impose solutions, many Middle Easterners believe that a new American activism is the main hope for a breakthrough. "The U. S. is now big uncle in the region," says a prominent Saudi businessman, "and it's going to have to force us and the Israelis to come to terms."

The White House says Bush plans to visit the region soon. He has set up meetings with European leaders to build a common approach to the Arab-Israeli problem. A grand coalition dislodged Saddam from Kuwait. Now, it may be used to crack an even tougher nut.

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