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Israel Hopeful That Baker Meeting with Levy Will Allay U.S. Concerns

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Once Secretary of State James Baker has his first meeting with Israel’s new foreign minister, David Levy, the Bush administration will no longer have any doubts about Israel’s commitment to the peace process, Israeli officials here believe.

Baker has sent a letter to Levy inviting him to meet with him in Paris on July 18 or 19, while the secretary is in the French capital for talks on German reunification.

Levy has been seeking such a meeting since he became foreign minister last month. But Israeli officials point out that Levy is still at home recuperating from a mild heart attack he suffered June 14, and they say it is still uncertain whether his doctors will allow him to travel.

Nevertheless, Israeli officials said they were “happy” with the Baker letter, which was delivered to Levy last Thursday night by U.S. Ambassador William Brown.

They believe the meeting will clear up the questions President Bush said he still has about the Israeli position after receiving a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

That letter “leaves me feeling we need further clarification, in terms of the questions I put to him,” Bush said during a televised news conference in London on Friday, at the conclusion of the NATO summit meeting.

This was Bush’s first public comment on the contents of the Shamir letter, which he received June 28. Until now, Bush and Baker had only said that the lengthy letter, Shamir’s reply to a series of questions sent to him by Bush two weeks earlier, needed careful study.

U.S. INSISTING ON DIALOGUE

On Friday, Bush did not cite any specific responses from Shamir, but indicated the next step in the peace process is up to Israel.

“We need more clarification, and, very candidly, I’d like to think that Israel would now move forward,” the president said.

Officials at the White House and the State Department were reluctant Friday to explain what Bush meant, except to suggest that there were “ambiguities” in the Shamir letter.

But the contents of the letter, as reported in Israel, left no doubt that Shamir continues to reject Baker’s proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in Cairo.

Shamir also stressed that the real obstacle to Middle East peace is not the Palestinian issue, but the refusal of Arab states to end their hostility toward Israel.

But Baker said Sunday that “fundamental to any peace process moving forward is a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.”

The United States is “working very hard to get other Arab countries to do what Egypt has done, and that is recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Baker said in an interview from Houston on ABC-TV’s “This Week with David Brinkley.”

He said such recognition “is part of moving toward peace, but it cannot be a precondition to getting a dialogue going between Israelis and Palestinians. I think if you had such a peace process moving, such a dialogue going, we would have a better chance of pushing Arab countries toward a recognition of Israel,” he said.

In his letter to Bush, Shamir stated clearly that his government still rejects the Baker proposal that Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and those deported from the territories be included in the Palestinian delegation to preliminary talks with Israel.

BUSH WANTS TO RESUME TALKS WITH PLO

Nevertheless, Bush stressed Friday that the United States will stick with Baker’s proposal. Maintaining that there must be talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the president said, “The ground rules are out there, and we’ve got to go forward.”

Bush indicated he has not dropped his personal concern about Jewish settlements in the territories. “We have a United States policy, and we are going to stay with the policy in terms of settlements,” he said.

The president also said he would like to resume the U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization, as soon as PLO leader Yasir Arafat meets U.S. demands to denounce the May 30 attempted terrorist attack on Tel Aviv area beaches.

“I happen to think the dialogue has been useful,” Bush said. “I don’t think Mr. Arafat particularly agrees with that, and I am quite confident that Mr. Shamir doesn’t agree with that. But nevertheless, that’s the view of the United States.”

Bush stressed that he did not break off the dialogue, only suspended it, until Arafat can get the Palestine National Council “not only to denounce that particular terrorist act, but also to take some action against the person who perpetrated it.”

When this happens, “I think we would certainly give rapid consideration to renewal of the dialogue,” he said.

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