PARIS -- What is Jim Baker, reputedly the swiftest political operative in Washington, doing in the middle of the awful mess known as the Middle East peace process? The right thing, as far as I can tell. But in the Middle East that may not be enough.

The secretary of state has invested his prestige and energy in trying to prevent a devastating cross-border explosion of violence in the Middle East. That is the right thing, but he gets no help from those he tries to help. Instead he has to duck brickbats thrown at him by vengeance-minded Palestinians and Israelis.

The result could turn out to be the worst of all worlds -- a U.S. policy without significant influence with the Palestinians or with the Israelis and a slide toward the most serious threat of a general Arab-Israeli war since 1973.

Arafatists will blame Baker for not pushing Israel hard enough. Shamir-Sharonists (followers of the new, two-pronged political leadership of Israel) will say the Americans pushed Israel too hard. Blaming Baker is easier for them than acknowledging that leaders on both sides failed to honor undertakings they gave to the United States, easier than admitting that these leaders prefer the status quo to seeking peace.

There have been some U.S. missteps, but President Bush and Baker did not create this dangerous stalemate. They saw it developing and sought to head it off. They were right, and unable to prevent what they feared. Their efforts deserve more credit than censure at this point.

Until he was slam-dunked back into the Middle East swamp, Baker had had a remarkable six-month run of successful East-West diplomacy. He has proven in that time that he is far more than a cagey deal-maker and a ruthless political manager, the two points of light in the reputation he brought with him to Foggy Bottom.

Baker has emerged as the most active and decisive member of Bush's foreign policy team on big issues. It was Baker's decision to design a formal diplomatic negotiating structure for German unification (the so-called two plus four process) and to put it rapidly in place when he saw that unification was happening willy-nilly as East Germany collapsed.

And it was Baker who turned to Bush at the crucial White House meeting during the summit and urged the president to agree to Mikhail Gorbachev's urgent pleas for a trade accord, despite the Lithuania crisis.

He needs it, Baker said, and the politics of it on Capitol Hill will work out. His diplomatic judgment appears to have been vindicated by Gorbachev's subsequent decision to open a direct dialogue with the leaders of the Baltic republics. His political judgment bore fruit when House Democratic leaders Richard Gephardt and Tom Foley pledged to support Bush on the trade accord in a White House meeting immediately after the summit ended.

This success deepens the puzzle of why things have gone so badly in the Middle East when they have gone so well elsewhere. The dichotomy suggests that the stalemate is due more to the intractability of the region's conflicts than to Baker's diplomacy.

Baker plunged into the uninviting waters of Middle East diplomacy in part because he was intrigued by the possibility of making a deal. An American who has talked with him at length over the past year says Baker became fully engaged during foreign policy conversations only when speaking of the Middle East.

But the challenge Baker sensed 18 months ago has given way to weariness and frustration. He let this show in his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 13 in a watershed performance by a major American political figure. Baker made clear his feeling that Israel's current leaders are not interested in peace, while seeking ways to continue the U.S.-PLO dialogue started under the Reagan administration.

Baker's keen political instincts are said to be attuned to an eventual run for the presidency. How then can he risk appearing to be lenient on the Palestinians and severe with the Israelis, all the while breaking his pick on peace negotiations?

One reason obviously is that Bush wants him to do this. The president is deeply concerned about escalation of the intifada revolt on the West Bank and in Gaza and its impact on friendly Arab regimes. He pushes Baker back into the morass each time Baker threatens to wash his hands of it.

Another important factor is the political calculation that Baker has made: he and Bush feel they owe nothing politically to the Israelis or to their supporters in the United States. After an eight-year honeymoon between Israel and the United States during the Reagan administration, American Jews voted decisively against Bush in 1988. Bush cannot count on them for 1992. More important, he does not appear to feel that he needs them.

Those two factors alone do not explain the tenacity and grit Baker has shown in handling this toughest of all his dossiers. I think the still incomplete Baker transformation that has been in the works for the past six months, from deal-maker to statesman in chrysalis, also keeps Baker on the case. He should not walk away in frustration from a crisis that needs all the statesmanship it can get.