Baker Tells Arens U.S. Expects ‘quick’ Response on Peace Talks

Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens returned from Washington on Sunday with a stern message from Secretary of State James Baker.

It was that the U.S. administration expects a “quick — very quick” response from Israel to Baker’s compromise formula for getting an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue started.

Arens, who returned to Israel on the same flight as a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, declined to comment publicly on the session with Baker until he had a chance to brief Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, whom he met in Tel Aviv late Sunday.

But clearly, the differences between the United States and Israel that are delaying movement toward Israeli-Palestinian talks were not resolved during Arens’ lengthy meeting with Baker on Friday. That explained the secretary’s extra note of urgency, Bush administration officials said in Washington.

Shamir and Arens now find themselves under growing pressure from both Washington and their Labor coalition partners in Jerusalem. They are being asked to break the ice by agreeing to new ideas on the issue of who will represent the Palestinians in talks with Israel.

Until now, Shamir has refused to accept Palestinians from East Jerusalem or anyone deported from the administered territories.

Baker is said to have proposed that Israel drop controversial categories such as “East Jerusalemites” and “deportees,” and focus instead on individuals.

The secretary reportedly suggested that in this way, persons linked to East Jerusalem by residency or work could find a place in the dialogue.

‘WE ARE NOT THERE YET’

Similarly, persons once deported from the territories who had remained not involved in hostile organizations could be allowed back and accepted as delegates.

Palestinians outside the territories could consider them their representatives, while Israel could consider them as representing residents of the territories.

It remains unclear whether Shamir and Arens are prepared to accept that approach, which has been endorsed by the Labor Party leadership. It has given Likud a two-week deadline to move the peace process forward.

But Shamir is also under severe pressure from Likud’s hard-line bloc to yield nothing.

In Washington, Baker called his meeting with Arens a “very constructive and hopefully very productive meeting.” It ran nearly an hour and 45 minutes, an hour longer than scheduled.

But the extended time did not result in the announcement of a date for a meeting Baker is to have with Arens and Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid. That meeting had been tentatively scheduled for January as a prelude to talks in Cairo between Israelis and Palestinians.

“We are not there yet, but I believe we are making some progress,” Baker said when asked about it Friday.

“We are continuing to work on some of the same issues that we have been working on over the past months,” he said, appearing to confirm reports that he is frustrated with the lack of progress.

Baker appeared to being putting pressure on Israel in statements he made to the House Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, a day before the meeting with Arens.

SHAMIR TELEPHONES BUSH

He said that when he met with Meguid in Washington recently, the talks on the Palestinian representative and agenda issues “went very, very well.”

“I foresee the possibility, if the foreign minister of Israel is in a position to be equally forthcoming and outgoing, that we might have some chance of making progress.” Baker added.

This pressure was intensified when, later that day, President Bush was quoted as telling Shamir in a telephone conversation to move the peace process forward.

The president “expressed his hope that the peace process could move forward, so that the U.S., Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministers could meet, and that a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian delegations would take place in Cairo soon,” the White House quoted Bush as saying.

The White House said Shamir had called Bush to thank him for Baker’s efforts during a recent visit to Moscow to persuade the Soviets to permit direct flights between Moscow and Tel Aviv.

“The president thanked the prime minister for his statement, and said that the United States would continue to support free emigration from the Soviet Union,” the White House said. “At the same time, the president reiterated U.S. opposition to any settlement activity.”

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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