Despite Week’s Tough Rhetoric, Shamir Praises Baker’s Efforts

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir seems to be supporting U.S. efforts to establish an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, even though he rejects Secretary of State James Baker’s specific proposals to bring it about, the State Department indicated Thursday.

“Secretary Baker yesterday received a letter from Prime Minister Shamir that applauds our efforts and encourages us to keep them up,” department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said at a news briefing Thursday.

The letter arrived after a week of scathing criticism by Shamir of mediation efforts by the United States, which he charged were aimed at forcing Israel to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization and get out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While Tutwiler did not divulge the contents of the letter, she said it “also dealt with how to get Palestinians and Israelis into a dialogue concerning elections.”

But elsewhere in the State Department, comment was less sanguine.

According to a source at the Near Eastern and South Asian desk, Shamir’s letter was “somewhat conciliatory.” But, the official said, “I wouldn’t say the peace process is hinging on the contents of the letter.”

Shamir’s letter to Baker was seen in Jerusalem as a concerted effort by the prime minister and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens to ease the tension with Washington.

It escalated sharply this week when Shamir declared he would sooner risk a “confrontation” with the United States than talk to the PLO.

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Yet after making that and similar remarks Tuesday, Shamir telephoned President Bush in an apparently friendly mood.

According to Shamir’s aides, the prime minister and president affirmed to each other that neither wanted a confrontation.

Bush added that the United States does not intend to force Israel to do anything it does not wish to do, the Israelis said.

Yossi Ben-Aharon, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, gave a series of media interviews Thursday in which he characterized U.S.-Israeli relations as a strong “alliance.”

He conceded that they had differences, but insisted that did not affect the fundamental solidity of the relationship.

He pointed to strategic cooperation without specifying as proof of the alliance’s strength.

Nevertheless, Ben-Aharon elaborated on Shamir’s vociferous objections earlier in the week to American proposals. He claimed they would lead inevitably to Israeli-PLO negotiations, which Israel would not countenance whether direct or indirect.

Ben-Aharon insisted the PLO could under no circumstances be a partner to negotiations.

(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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