SECRETARY of State Warren Christopher heads for the Middle East this weekend, hoping to prevent United States peace efforts for the region from becoming a casualty of Israel's offensive in southern Lebanon.
The original intent of Secretary Christopher's planned swing through Egypt, Israel, Syria, and Jordan was to push for progress on Palestinian self-rule, among other things.
Instead he may find himself playing the unavoidable role of short-term trucemaker.
That could waste precious time and further shift attention away from a 21-month-old peace process that is beginning to totter. If the process collapses, the Middle East's cycle of fighting might well only intensify.
"This violence is counterproductive for the peace process," Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Edward Djerejian said before Congress July 27.
US officials accused Iran and Iranian-backed Hizbullah guerrillas of deliberately provoking Israel's ire through initial rocket attacks on Israeli settlements. The attacks were timed to precede Christopher's visit, US officials claim.
"We must not let opponents of the peace process undermine it," said Christopher, as he cut short an Asian visit to return to Washington for consultations. Refugees as message
Israel's response of overwhelming air and artillery attacks was designed as much to send refugees flowing north into Beirut as to destroy guerrilla targets. Reports from Israel indicated that the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin hoped the refugee flow would pressure the Lebanese government and its patron, Syria, into controlling Hizbullah activities.
For the most part US officials were mum about Syria's role in the escalating violence, other than to praise Syrian restraint in the face of casualties among Syrian soldiers based in Lebanon. The risk of fighting escalating into a wider Israeli-Syrian war was much on the minds of Washington policymakers.
As always seems to be the case, this latest round of Middle East problems comes at a delicate time in peace negotiations. Hints of possible progress have given way to hardened positions, endangering the entire process.
On the central issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the US currently has two goals that Christopher hopes to promote this weekend. Early empowerment
One is what Assistant Secretary Djerejian called "early empowerment."
That means a transfer of some government powers and responsibilities to Palestinians even before agreement is reached on a formal self-governing structure.
The second is completion of a joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles.
Each side put forth a draft of such a statement during talks in Washington last month, and the US has been pushing hard to narrow the differences between them.
Delegations from Syria and Israel have been wrangling over a similar declaration in their part of the talks, though deep divisions remain between them, according to the US.
US officials hope to revitalize talks and reconvene in Washington soon, perhaps in August.
"We believe this is a practical and workable way to proceed," Djerejian told Congress.
Christopher's mission would undoubtedly be helped if the fighting in Lebanon abates before his arrival.
Otherwise he will almost inevitably be drawn into attempts to establish a cease-fire, admitted US officials.
But as of this writing there was no indication of any letup. Israel was publicly talking a tough line.
"The fighting will end when Israel's aim of eliminating the threat from Hizbullah has been achieved," said a statement issued by Prime Minister Rabin's office.