MADELEINE ALBRIGHT is off to the Middle East for the first American peacekeeping mission on the watch of the new Israeli leader, the cautious, peace-minded Ehud Barak. She means to "take stock" and find facts, but it is virtually inevitable that the Mideast players will contrive to draw the United States in to close gaps that their own leaderships cannot bridge. The reach for outside intervention -- American intervention -- is in the tradition of decades of American regional peacekeeping. The record shows that, handled well, it can work.

Secretary Albright's first task is to loosen the knot that Prime Minister Barak's predecessor and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tied in the Wye agreement. Wye provided, among other things, for further but partial Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank -- withdrawals that Mr. Barak is now asking the Palestinians to adjust in size and time so that Israel can feel better positioned to address the big peace issues -- borders, refugees, a Palestinian state, Jerusalem and the like. Years of familiarity with these issues on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide have made their easing conceivable, although hardly ensured.

The formula for an Israeli-Syrian resolution is apparent: full Israeli withdrawal for full Syrian respect and compensation for Israel's strategic exposure. Unfortunately, Syrian strongman Hafez Assad is taking the perversely wrongheaded position that Israel must commit to full withdrawal as a precondition to negotiations. His friends need to tell him to get real.

The Arab-Israeli dispute was a contest of the nationalisms that arose from the disintegration of colonial empires in World War I. The dispute now seems hopelessly outdated and unnecessary, but its effects linger on. In the Middle East as elsewhere, the overpowering need is to catch up with the positive values and opportunities that grew out of World War II: They are summed up in the word freedom. If it is not done now in the region, there may not be another opening for a generation. No one can want to try to tally the possible costs of obstruction and delay.