Pro-israel Senator is the Latest to Back International Conference

A leading pro-Israel senator this week urged President Bush to consider the idea of hosting an international conference with the Soviet Union whose purpose would be to achieve a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) made the suggestion to Bush during a meeting Wednesday at the White House. Also attending the meeting was Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.).

In Jerusalem, the Foreign Ministry’s immediate reaction Thursday was to declare that Israel would prefer to negotiate directly with each of the Arab states and is ready to start such negotiations immediately, without any preconditions.

The international conference idea, which Israel has long opposed and the Arab states have repeatedly supported, has gained new currency recently, as the prospects for bringing about direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have dimmed.

Several European nations have long backed the idea of convening an international conference under the auspices of the United Nations. What has changed is that staunch supporters of Israel are now warming to the idea as well.

TRIGGERED BY ASSAD VISIT

What may have stimulated reconsideration of the idea of an international conference this week was Syrian President Hafez Assad’s visit to Egypt, his first in more than a decade.

Speaking Sunday night at a news conference in Alexandria, Assad said he was ready to enter the peace process “under certain conditions,” one of which was an international conference.

But Specter’s proposal for an international conference is somewhat different than that long advocated by the Arab states. His plan calls for the United States and the Soviet Union only to facilitate the meeting, Dan McKenna, the senator’s press secretary, explained Thursday.

Israel and the Arab countries would negotiate their own agreements, he added.

Specter was not seeking to put pressure on Israel, but to find a way to “defuse” the current tense situation in the Middle East, McKenna said.

That is why the Specter proposal does not include the other three permanent members of the Security Council: Britain, France and China, McKenna said. He said the senator felt these countries might take more anti-Israel positions.

The Bush administration, while not ruling out an international conference, has opposed it because it does not believe such a conference could work at this time.

State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday that the United States “remains committed to moving forward to a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Shamir has adamantly opposed an international conference under U.N. auspices. But he has been quoted in the past as saying he would consider a conference under U.S.-Soviet auspices.

(JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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