The announcement of a historic Middle East peace conference to be convened in Madrid beginning Oct. 30 was a happy day for Secretary of State James Baker, who has worked tirelessly for eight months to achieve it. The conference is expected to last four days and is to be followed by "direct negotiations to achieve real peace," Baker said.

With commitments to attend from all Arab parties, the Madrid conference will be the first since 1949 at which Israel has sat down in face-to-face talks with all of its neighbors. It was not easy to arrange.The unsettling part of the story is that there appears to be little joy about it in the Middle East. Statements made about it by Arab and Israeli leaders sound fearful, hostile and uncompromising.

It should be remembered that the conference was not instigated by the parties in conflict, but rather by the Bush admimistration, which exploited the political weaknesses on each side to force them to the conference table.

Baker, sensing the changed environment precipitated by the demise of the Soviet Union and the military rout of Iraq, exerted the clout of the only superpower left with prestige in the region.

His crowning achievement was to persuade Syria, Israel's most despised enemy, to agree to face-to-face talks with Israel for the first time. Everyone realizes that this particular dispute will be the most difficult to resolve.

Nevertheless, all watching this conference with hope and optimism should remember that the odds are very much against the talks going anywhere.

As Middle East experts have said, there might very well be an increase of controversy, anger and fear, "and a lot of ugliness."

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There could even be many arguments over small things - like the size of the table - that could still scuttle the conference before it even convenes.

Baker and his associates should be lauded for exceptional, exhaustive efforts to reach this point. Now we should all look at it realistically as a small first step that might result in failure.

Even if that is the case, there is never any progress toward peace without vigilant effort. Problems cannot be resolved without reasonable people talking about them.

The fact that the talks are within striking distance is in itself an amazing milepost.

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