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Baker’s Decision to Visit Syria is No Surprise to Israeli Official

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s announcement Monday that he would visit Syria later this week came as no surprise to Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told Jewish leaders here Monday that he had been given advance notice of the visit, the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 1988, during his meeting in Washington last week with Baker.

Levy said he had been assured by Baker that there would be no deals made “behind Israel’s back or at Israel’s expense” during the secretary’s visit, which Baker announced at a news conference in Brussels.

The visit is being viewed as a sign of improving relations between Washington and Damascus, which have been strained for years over Syria’s support of radical Palestinian groups.

But it is also being seen as a further attempt to isolate Iraq from the rest of the Arab world. Syria has contributed troops to the multinational front against Iraq, and the Baker visit will give the Bush administration an opportunity to express its appreciation.

When Baker told Levy he was going to Damascus, the Israeli foreign minister suggested the secretary make a stop in Jerusalem, too, sometime in the near future.

Baker reportedly agreed. “He will come, I have no doubt,” Levy told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at a meeting wrapping up his visit to the United States.

While Levy’s meetings with Bush administration officials were described as friendly, they appear to have done little to narrow the gap between Israel and the United States on the proper approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, despite the two nations’ newest common enemy: Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

REJECTS INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE

But this gap did not seem to faze Levy, who told the Jewish leaders his trip was not intended to point up differences between the two nations. “To pick a fight, you don’t need to come all the way from Jerusalem to Washington,” he said.

Levy seemed confident that the United States, like Israel, rejects any comparison between Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He said the United States does not envision any linkage between resolution of the two issues.

The only victor of such a linkage, Levy said, would be Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, who has shown support for Iraq in its confrontation with the United States.

“For aiding and abetting the enemies of today, he (Arafat) should not come out with a reward in his hand,” Levy said.

The foreign minister stressed repeatedly to the audience of American Jewish leaders that negotiating with Arab states, rather than the Palestinians, is his idea of the answer to a lasting Middle East peace.

“It’s wrong for anyone to think that the Palestinian problem is the central point” of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Levy said.

The foreign minister sharply rejected the suggestion of an international peace conference, an idea revived in the last week by Soviet officials. Pointing out that the United States has opposed such a conference, Levy said the idea was, like the title of the famous movie, “gone with the wind.”

“Israel is not going to be arraigned before some international tribunal,” he declared. “We will stand on our elemental right to have direct negotiations.”

PROGRESS WITH THE SOVIETS POSSIBLE

Despite the disagreement on an international conference, Levy hinted at possible future progress in Soviet-Israeli relations. He said that an Israeli Foreign Ministry delegation would soon visit Moscow, so that during his upcoming meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze at the U.N. General Assembly, “we can resolve certain matters.”

At that meeting, “I hope there will be a breakthrough,” Levy said, though he did not say whether he thought the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries was imminent.

At the Conference of Presidents, Levy managed to create a positive rapport with the Diaspora leaders, despite the fact that he spoke through a translator. American Jewish leaders attending the speech described him as “frank” and “warm.”

The establishment of good feelings also was Levy’s most tangible accomplishment in his meetings with Baker and Bush. But left unclear was when the United States would issue guarantees for $400 million in loans to help Israel build housing for Soviet immigrants.

At a news conference here with Israeli reporters last Friday, Levy expressed optimism that progress would soon be made on the long awaited housing loan guarantees, which were approved by Congress this spring.

“There is phrasing we agreed to crystallize in the coming days. I think we’ll complete it soon,” he said.

During Levy’s current stay in New York, he paid a visit Sunday to the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. He met Monday with New York Mayor David Dinkins.

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