Eight months after it all began, the Middle East peace mission of Secretary of State James Baker is still short of its goal and the calendar is bearing down on him.
The hope that a new spirit would arise in the region from the defeat of Iraq in February - and that it would bring Israel, the Arab nations and the Palestinians to the peace table - remained an unproved theory as Baker flew to Egypt on Saturday for another round of shuttle diplomacy.Israel remains suspicious of Syria and the Palestinians, and the feeling is mutual.
And yet, the trip could be the clincher.
Baker is under pressure from the July announcement by President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that they intended to stage the peace conference this month.
U.S. officials say he is closer to the goal than ever before, and even if he does not hammer out the final details in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Israel and with the Palestinians, Bush and Gorbachev may issue invitations anyhow in the expectation the guests would find it impossible to turn them down.
Toward the end of the trip, Baker plans to meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin to coordinate the next steps with Moscow.
The most positive sign would be a declaration by the Palestinians that they are ready to attend. The most helpful might be Soviet diplomatic recognition of Israel.
This is Baker's eighth trip since February, and while he has tentative approval from Israel, Syria and Jordan for a peace conference, many of the same issues and attitudes that dogged him at the start are still in his way.
The Palestinians, with whom he met at the State Department on Thursday and Friday, are resisting, maneuvering for terms that offer hope for self-rule on the West Bank and Gaza and might even hint at eventual statehood.
A list of Palestinian negotiators acceptable to both Israel and to the Palestine Liberation Organization remains to be drawn up. And Baker still is waiting for a public statement that would signal the Palestinians' readiness to negotiate with Israel.
Preferably, the statement would come in Amman, the capital of Jordan, where King Hussein has agreed to a joint delegation with Palestinians.
In the meantime, a steady stream of disputes with the Bush administration may have weakened Israel's confidence in the United States as a reliable partner sure to protect Israel against a gang up at the peace conference.
This past week, the administration criticized Israeli overflights of Iraq. There is lingering resentment in Jerusalem over President Bush's refusal to guarantee $10 billion in housing loans to help settle Soviet Jews and other immigrants. And the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has contributed to the strains.
Apart from the diplomatic issues, Baker is keeping an eye out for terrorist incidents.
Referring to what he called "highly classified information," Baker said Thursday that "as we get closer and closer to the end of October, I think that you will see a tendency on the part of rejectionists or extremists across the region to take actions designed to disrupt the possibilities for peace."
The State Department Saturday issued travel advisories cautioning U.S. citizens not to take two Air France flights between Paris and Amman.