The triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem last week and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip starting tomorrow recall what George P. Shultz said fifteen years ago. The newly-minted secretary of state had come to office knowing and caring

The triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem last week and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip starting tomorrow recall what George P. Shultz said fifteen years ago. The newly-minted secretary of state had come to office knowing and caring little about the Middle East. But crises forced him to focus on the region and just five months on the job, he wearily noted that "unless you do something about it, in the job of secretary of state you will spend 100 percent of your time on the Middle East" A year after that, he wryly observed that "Every Secretary of State becomes a Middle East expert very rapidly, whether he wants to or not."

When Mrs. Albright came to office last January, she too had determined not to get stuck in the Middle East quagmire. She was well aware that her predecessor, Warren Christopher had made two dozen visits to Damascus alone and was criticized for becoming, as one wit put it, secretary of state for the Middle East.

Actually, there's a good explanation as to why secretaries of state become absorbed with the Middle East: much about it directly concerns the world's sole super power. To begin with, the region from Libya to Iran contains two-thirds of all reserves of petroleum. The Middle East also boasts the distinction of a majority of the world's outlaw states (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya); of more border disputes than any other region; and of fundamentalist Islam, the most dynamic anti-American ideology in the world today. It also has something unique: many conflicts in which whole states are in jeopardy of being snuffed out by their neighbors (such as happened to Kuwait in 1990-91).

Further, the Middle East spawns the deadliest terrorist groups, it exports them abroad (think of the World Trade Center), and it develops cutting-edge techniques (the car bomb, state-supported terrorism). It is the only region where arsenals, conventional and unconventional alike, are still growing. About a quarter of the illegal drugs that enter the United States come from the Middle East. Governments in the region have so mastered the art of counterfeiting that the U.S. mint has created a new $100 bill expressly to foil them.

These reasons, however, are but the background for the secretary of state's trip to the Middle East; the primary reason concerns Israel and its conflict with the Arabs. Ever since the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when the price of oil shot up almost fourfold, the U.S. government has been deeply involved in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, hoping that its conclusion will both secure Israel's future and ameliorate at least some of the region's other problems.

But Arab-Israeli diplomacy is hampered by its fundamental imbalance: the land-for-peace formula at its heart calls on the victor (Israel) to give up a tangible good (lands it won in 1967) in return for nothing but an abstraction (promises of peaceful intent) from the vanquished (the Arabs).

To these difficult negotiations, the U.S. government brings three unique strengths. First, its steady friendship toward Israel bolsters Israeli confidence; Jerusalem finds it easier to give up land knowing the Americans provide everything from first-rate weaponry to vetoes at the United Nations. Second the United States is the world's strongest and most stable state, so it can uniquely reward Israel for taking risks (or punish it for not doing so). Third, American diplomats have had shown great the creativity, inventing new methods (shuttle diplomacy, locking up heads of state in a mountain retreat, bribing governments for making peace) and even devising a new vocabulary (peace process, final status talks).

This combination of friendship, power, and creativity have permitted the U.S. government to compile a stunning record of success in Arab-Israeli diplomacy through the terms of six presidents. It helped Israel reach agreements with Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinians. (Only Jordan manages to do business directly with Israel without recourse to Washington.) But there have also been failures-a long list of unsuccessful missions, unfulfilled commitments and aborted agreements.

What led to success, what to failure? A review of the record reveals one prerequisite for success: that the Middle Eastern parties mutually want to reach an agreement and settle a problem. In this circumstance, American cajoling often makes a key difference. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979 and the Oslo II pact of 1995 both depended on just such an push.

But if one or both parties does not really want to go ahead, or is using negotiations for some ulterior purpose, American diplomats cannot help. Worse, in the course of chasing an illusion, they debase the prestige of the United States and, ultimately, its ability to arrange a settlement. Warren Christopher so obviously wanted a treaty more than his hosts in Damascus that at one point the Syrian president ostentatiously stood him up, rendering Mr. Christopher and his government foolish.

With this history in mind, Mrs. Albright ought to make it her first priority to find out whether or not the three main parties (Syria, the Palestinians and Israel) are in fact looking to make peace. If they are, then by all means, she should emulate her predecessors and make the Middle East a frequent destination. If they are not she would do well to follow her initial instincts and not return to the region for a long time.

And, sad to say, most indications suggest that the three parties do not seek peace. The Syrian government has over the years shown interest in keeping the negotiations going as an end in themselves, without reaching a conclusion; it wants a peace process, not peace. This was most apparent in mid-1995 when it told Mr. Christopher it would resume talks with Israel and then, at the last minute, added a gratuitous new condition that effectively killed the negotiating process. The Palestinians view agreements not as solemn contracts to be lived by faithfully but as tools surreptitiously to erode Israel's security, as shown by their fulfilling very few of their promises about shutting down terrorism, turning off the aggressive rhetoric, and changing the Palestinian charter. In light of such Arab attitudes, the Israeli government understandably responds with something less than enthusiasm about signing new agreements.

All of this suggests that the time has come for the chief American diplomat to spend her time on issues other than the Arab-Israeli conflict. But then, that's probably something she's going to have to learn the hard way.

[Postscript: Albright told reporters on her flight back home on the plane back from the Middle East: "I cannot be preoccupied with this full time." ]