No one, and certainly not the Israelis, is talking about such an idea right now. But already, in the few days of Mr. Baker's travels, the same obstacles that blocked peace in past years are threatening to sabotage the best chance for Arab-Israeli peace since 1947.
The positive changes in the region are striking. America's crushing defeat of Iraq and its simultaneous defense of Israel have destroyed Arab illusions that Israel can be defeated by force. The Soviet Union, which sided with the allies, can no longer afford to stir up Mideast trouble.
Syria, still heavily armed and next door to Israel, is economically prostrate and on the Saudi dole. The gulf Arabs want to concentrate on development, not war. The Egyptians, who emerged winners from the gulf war, want other Arab states to join them in making peace with Israel.
But there is one very major catch. The price of Arab recognition of Israel remains Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories - the West Bank, Gaza strip and Golan Heights - along with Palestinian self-determination. And the current Israeli government of Likud Party Premier Yitzhak Shamir has repeatedly made clear that it will not give up any West Bank and Gaza land for any price.
There are two principal reasons for this rigid stand. One is ideological: Those territories are viewed as biblical Jewish lands.
The other reason, shared by many Israelis who aren't hard-line Likud supporters, is security. If the occupied lands are turned into a Palestinian state, Israel at one point would be only eight miles wide.
United States cannot convince ideological diehards to change their beliefs. But it can address the understandable security fears of the Israeli people, the majority of whom would probably be ready to give up land if they were convinced that the result would be peace and security.
Just as Washington is about to become the guarantor of Persian Gulf peace, by leaving planes, bases and ships to back up an Arab ground force, the administration could offer treaty guarantees to Israel that American planes, weapons or troops would defend Israel if its new borders were crossed by missiles or Arab armies. A tripwire force of American soldiers might even patrol the Israel-Palestine border.
Washington would, of course, have to supplement such a treaty with guarantees of instantaneous satellite intelligence and expedited aid in developing anti-missile systems. That way Israel's military would have the option of responding by itself to any missile attack.
Such a proposal would have been a nonstarter before the gulf war. Israelis have bitter memories of United Nations guarantees that proved worthless when Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser blocked off water access to Israel's southern port of Eilat in 1967. That was the prelude to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
And both Israelis and Arabs doubted the value of American military commitments prior to the gulf victory. Israeli military analysts were skeptical about America's will to fight Iraq, and many disparaged the skills of American forces. Israel's army, imbued with the tradition of self-reliance, was intent on retaliating for Scud missile attacks.
By convincing Israel's government to let America defend Israel against the
Scuds, the U.S. administration set a unique precedent. America lived up to its commitment and earned new respect from Israeli commanders. Equally important, the Arab allies, including Syria, accepted the concept that America would defend Israel. If a U.S.-Israel defense treaty were the price of resolving the Palestinian issue, the major Arab countries would probably go along.
What makes such a treaty more plausible is the vulnerability of Israel as demonstrated by the Scud missile attacks. As President Bush noted last week, when endorsing the principle of exchanging land for peace, "We have learned in the modern age geography cannot guarantee security . . . ." In the future, Arab countries might aquire more sophisticated missiles than Iraq had. In a high-tech era, a ground war is no longer the most dangerous threat.
Some Mideast experts have noted that the cost of keeping up with the high- tech arms Mideast race is going to keep rising. Despite current talk about controlling missile proliferation in the region, that goal will remain a pipe
dream while the Israeli-Arab conflict continues.
Israel, strapped for funds in its effort to resettle hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews, would have to look to the United States to pay the rising military bills. It might be cheaper for America to guarantee Israel's safety with its own weapons and troops.
No doubt the details would be dicey, and entrusting its security to an outside power would go against the ethos of the long-beleaguered Jewish state. But if the major Arab states turn out to be truly willing to sign peace treaties with Israel in exchange for return of the occupied lands, then it would be tragic for such a chance to be lost. The way out of the conundrum might be to address the legitimate security fears of the Israeli public. If America is willing to protect the gulf in order to ensure regional stability, why not protect Israel, too?