Baker's Mideast Triumph May Fade With The Flashbulbs

After months of arm-twisting in the Middle East, Secretary of State James A. Baker III seems about to suc ceed in prodding Arabs and Israelis to join in a regional peace conference. The changed post-cold-war politics of the Mideast have persuaded the Syrians and Israelis to attend. While Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization's leader, is dragging his heels, he risks having talks go on without him if he hangs back.

However, Baker's triumph may dim as quickly as the floodlights after the conference's inaugural photo opportunity. The aim of the meeting, likely to take place in October, is to set the stage for direct, bilateral peace talks between Israel and its neighbors--Syria, Lebanon, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. To hash out regional issues, the U. S. and Soviet co-sponsors are expected to launch an array of subconferences. But there's little prospect of the kind of big leap forward that produced peace between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in 1978.

AFRAID TO REFUSE. The reason: Today's Mideast leaders are motivated more by fear ef alienating Washington than by an impetus to settle regional conflicts. Key players, such as Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, are driven "by a desire not to say no to the U. S. rather than a desire to say yes to each other," says Martin Indyk of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

As a result, there's a great risk that the conference will mostly reinforce the status quo. Assad, for one, has already gained much of what he wants. By accepting President Bush's bid to attend, he has refurbished his image as an Arab leader and made Damascus a focal point of U. S. diplomacy in the region. That, he hopes, will help make up for setbacks such as declining Soviet support for Syria.

For Shamir, merely saying yes to the conference also pays off. It ensures that Jerusalem will get some $10 billion in U. S.-guaranteed loans to help settle Soviet immigrants. Israel is expected to submit its request in early September, possibly for a series of five annual $2 billion guarantees, and Congress will likely approve the first before the October conference.

Washington's best hope may be to lever what one Administration official calls "pieces of a peace"--small deals that could keep alive chances for bigger breakthroughs. For example, the U. S. might talk Syria and Israel into new arrangements on the Golan Heights that would reduce the risk of surprise attack. And in southern Lebanon, a Syrian pledge to curb terrorists could be rewarded with Israeli troop pullbacks. But elections facing Shamir and Bush next year could delay tackling the toughest issues, such as swapping Israeli-occupied land for peace.

While the conference seems unlikely to produce clear winners, the Palestinians already look like losers. The PLO is facing a leadership crisis over Arafat's support for Iraq in the gulf war. Now, the U. S. is backing Shamir's insistence that the Palestinian delegation must exclude PLO members and residents of disputed East Jerusalem. Despite the Palestinians' weakness, however, it's still unlikely that a lasting peace can be arranged without them. By refusing to deal with the PLO now, Israel and the U. S. may be making it even tougher to reach a future settlement. Because younger West Bank Palestinians are challenging the old PLO leadership, "the question of who speaks for the Palestinians may be even more complex three years from now than it is today," says Yahya M. Sadowski, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution.

So prospects for Mideast peace are still murky at best. But the conference will be a success if it manages to nudge Israelis and Arabs even a few steps on the long road to that goal.

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