'When You're Serious, Call Us'

It was meant to shock, and it did. Needled by a congressman who blamed President Bush for the collapse of the Middle East "peace process," Secretary of State James Baker last week delivered a U.S. administration's sharpest public rebuke to an Israeli government since the 1966 Suez crisis. First he detailed how Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir scuttled his own peace plan and brought down the misnamed "national unity" government in March by balking at a compromise formula for talks with Palestinians. Baker complained that Israel's new right-wing government was posing more obstacles to talks. Then he offered the White House phone number: 1-202-456-1414. "When you're serious about peace, call us," he said.

Baker's challenge implicitly acknowledged the sudden deterioration of Mideast relations. "The region seems headed for a bloodbath," said a despairing State Department official. The new Shamir government is expected to take a tougher approach toward the 30-month-old Palestinian uprising, stepping up deportations and "collective punishment." An underground communique urged Palestinians to firebomb military outposts and spread roads with oil and nails. Some might replace their rocks with assault rifles. Beyond the occupied territories, Arab leaders are boiling over the ongoing influx of Soviet Jews to Israel. They compare it to the postwar exodus that in 1948 helped spark the first of four Middle East wars.

Israel's top priority now is absorbing the Soviet Jews, a project to be directed by former general Ariel Sharon. And the government is committed to "strengthen, expand and develop" Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip--an anathema to the Arabs. "It is a war cabinet, the worst in Israel's history," said Salah Khalaf, Yasir Arafat's top deputy in the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Shamir's cabinet resembles the second administration of Menachem Begin, the Likud party leader who made peace with Egypt, then invaded Lebanon to drive Arafat out. But the Likud coalition, cobbled together with seven other religious or right-wing parties, holds only a 2-vote majority in the Knesset. Three small parties, holding a total of seven seats, advocate keeping the West Bank and Gaza Strip forever. Another that will vote with the Likud government urges expelling all Arabs. Shamir is a "captive of the right," said Rabbi David Clayman of the American Jewish Congress.

The extremists, however, were not the main target of Baker's broadside. He complained about reports that a Shamir aide had dismissed the last U.S. proposal for talks as irrelevant. Shamir himself was reported to have hardened the conditions under which Palestinians could sit down with the government. Afterward, Israeli officials insisted that Shamir's remark had been "distorted." Baker should have waited "until we can crystallize our policy, which is to continue the peace process,"; said Shamir adviser Avi Pazner. But Baker's challenge came because the new Israeli intransigence had not yet hardened into policy, U.S. officials said. The carefully planned outburst fit with an equally stern public warning to the PLO at another congressional hearing a day earlier. Baker warned the PLO that the United States would break off its "dialogue" with the organization unless Arafat disavowed a foiled speedboat attack on Israeli beaches May 30 and punished its author, dissident PLO leader Abul Abbas. Baker "felt it was time to put on the record, in public, what he has told both the PLO and the Israelis in private," said a senior Baker aide.

Best offer To the PLO, Baker has said that the United States won't wait through the summer while Arafat dithers over the wording of an acceptable statement on Abul Abbas. Diplomats from Egypt, Sweden and the Soviet Union all have tried to bridge the gap, but the best the PLO has offered so far is an internal investigation of the Abbas raid. Privately, PLO officials said Arafat could not appear to knuckle under to the public demands; anti-Americanism is raging in his ranks, partly because America won't waive its immigration quotas for Soviet Jews. To the Israelis, Baker wanted to "lay down a marker" making it clear that Washington would not be drawn into a process of redefining terms under which Israel would engage in dialogue with Palestinians, a White House official said. Nobody was predicting immediate results. Though more than 6,000 people called the White House at Baker's invitation, none represented the Israeli government. But it was clear that the United States would not walk away from the peace process, America's main diplomatic lever in the Middle East. With danger signals pointing toward the most volatile period in the region since the 1982 Lebanon invasion, such a retreat I would only serve the extremists. Said a senior U.S. official: "The situation is much too dangerous to disengage altogether."