IN THE explorations under way on the possibilities for Arab-Israeli peace, there is one fact of immediate importance. President Bush is going to the Middle East next month.
An American president at the height of his powers would not plan such a trip in the expectation of coming back empty-handed. He will want a result of some kind.
And George Bush has made very clear that he wants to breathe light into that hypothetical creature, the Middle East peace process.
What can Bush do? The familiar obstacles to peace are still there, as Secretary of State Baker has just found. The Shamir government in Israel is dead set against trading occupied lands for peace. The Arabs will only negotiate on that premise. And so on.
But there is an idea that could get a process started. William Quandt, the Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, began talking about it several weeks ago.
It has found some resonance in official Washington. And it fits President Bush's natural instincts.
The idea is to hold a conference, in Cairo, on peace and security in the region. The United States and the Soviet Union would convene it. The participants would be Egypt, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
That concept would finesse the prickly issue of an international conference including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, which the Arabs have demanded and Israel rejected.
Past proposals for joint U.S.-Soviet action in the Middle East have aroused strong objections from some American conservatives and supporters of Israel. But such opposition might be muted if the Israeli government accepts the idea, and there are reasons to believe it might.
Moscow would almost certainly restore diplomatic relations with Israel if Israel agreed to go to such a conference. Resuming normal Soviet relations has long been an Israeli hope, more important now with large numbers of Soviet Jews going to Israel or planning to go.
A meeting on the model suggested would produce face-to-face negotiations between Israel and its neighbors without preconditions: an object of Israeli policy since the state was founded in 1948. The role of the convening powers would be limited, and there would be less sense of possible pressure from outsiders than at the proposed international conference.
Shamir might also find it easier to accept the idea of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation than one of Palestinians alone. His opposition to any role for the PLO helped to wreck Baker's earlier efforts to get talks going.
Would Palestinians in the occupied territories be ready to take part in any delegation with Jordanians? There can be no certainty. But the Palestinians who met Baker in Jerusalem this week reportedly were realistic in their tone and gave him some reason to believe the idea would work. Would the Saudis agree to take part? It is not yet clear whether the Saudi government is ready to play a larger diplomatic role after the Persian Gulf war or will revert to its traditional reserve. But its participation is not essential to the regional conference idea.
Egypt would play a critical role as the host. It is on closer terms with Syria now than in a very long time, and of course it is the one Arab country that has relations with Israel.
Egypt is also in the best position to extend a hand to Jordan and the Palestinians after their support of Saddam Hussein in the war.
The Cairo conference, as it is envisaged, would have three distinct tracks. One would seek peace between Israel and the Arab states, the second a solution of the Palestinian problem, the third security arrangements for the region.
The conference would have no time limit. It would really be a beginning -- a device to start talking.
In my judgment that is exactly the right concept. There can be no instant solutions to problems so difficult. But talking has its own value.
In the last few days both Egypt and France have pulled back from their former enthusiasm for the international conference. That may be a sign that the regional conference idea is taking hold.
If there is ever to be a real Middle East peace process, this is the time for it. The Cold War is not in the way. George Bush is an extraordinarily popular president. He will have wide support abroad for an initiative. And I believe he is really committed to making the effort.