WASHINGTON (Oct. 24)
The State Department threw cold water Tuesday on optimistic reports from Israel that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is close to accepting Secretary of State James Baker’s five-point proposal leading to Israeli-Palestinian talks in Cairo.
Israeli news reports said Foreign Minister Moshe Arens had sent Baker a cable Monday night accepting the five-point proposal in principle, but proposing several major revisions.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler confirmed Tuesday that Baker had received the cable. But she said it dealt with same issues that Baker and Arens have discussed on the telephone for the last two weeks.
The Israelis still have serious concerns or reservations that the United States is working with them to overcome, she said.
But at the Israeli Embassy here, spokeswoman Ruth Yaron countered that the Arens cable sent a “positive message” to the United States.
Arens expressed “Israel’s readiness to accept in principle Baker’s five points, with slight modifications that are needed in order to make sure Israeli concerns are met,” Yaron said.
She said Israel has two major concerns. The first is “to make sure that Israel will not find itself negotiating” with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The second is to make sure that the Cairo talks will deal with Israel’s proposal to have Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip elect representatives to participate in peace negotiations with Israel.
NO ‘SIEGE SITUATION’
Tutwiler said the United States believes that “the Israelis are working hard to advance the peace process. Without saying whether they have accepted or rejected Baker’s five points, it is obvious they are seriously exploring a way to bridge the gap.”
The United States is “continuing to work closely with Israel and Egypt to bring about a positive response to the five points,” she added.
Tutwiler was reluctant to say that any progress had been made with the Arens cable. But her tone Tuesday was clearly more friendly to Israel than it was last week when she criticized statements by Shamir as “unhelpful.”
In Israel, Shamir, who last week accused the Bush administration of trying to force Israeli talks with the PLO, denied Tuesday that there is “either a crisis or a siege situation” between Israel and the United States.
Instead, he told reporters accompanying him on a visit to military positions in the Golan Heights that the situation is now in a “clarification stage.”
Shamir said Tuesday that when the “clarification stage” is completed, he will bring the issue before the Cabinet. Both hard-line ministers in Shamir’s Likud bloc and leaders of the Labor Party, Likud’s coalition partner, have complained that they have been excluded from the negotiations on Baker’s five points.
Shamir also reiterated Tuesday that he hopes to meet with President Bush and Baker in Washington on Nov. 15, as planned. There have been indications he might cancel the trip if disagreements with Washington are not resolved by then.
Reports in Washington late last week and over the weekend indicated that Baker was growing impatient with the Israeli position and was on the verge of “washing his hands” of Israel’s peace initiative.
BAKER LESS PESSIMISTIC
But after the latest diplomatic exchange, the secretary of state appears to be a bit more hopeful. Responding to a question after his speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Monday night, Baker repeated his assertion there is a “possibility” for success, but not a “probability.”
Tutwiler said Tuesday that the secretary is “not overly pessimistic; he is not overly optimistic; he is very realistic.”
She said that Arens’ cable reinforced the U.S. assertion that Israel, the United States and Egypt “are working hard to bridge the gap” and meet the concerns of both Israel and Egypt.
Tutwiler indicated that Baker has not yet changed the wording of any of his five points, though he is open to changes. “Baker is not an unreasonable person,” she said.
A State Department source indicated that Israel’s concerns could possibly be met without changing Baker’s five points through a “side letter.” A similar approach was used in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter, who sent separate side letters to Israel and Egypt to assuage different concerns they had about the Camp David accords.
(JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)