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Finally, Baker Sets Agenda for Mideast Visit to Israel

It may have taken an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and a subsequent war to get Secretary of State James Baker to visit Israel, but the pro-Israel community is pleased nonetheless.

Baker will be visiting Israel in early March as part of a Middle East trip that includes return visits to several Arab countries in the U.S.-led allied coalition against Iraq, starting with Saudi Arabia.

In Israel, Baker will meet with President Chaim Herzog, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Moshe Arens during a “very short visit,” in the words of one Israeli official.

The whirlwind trip, starting March 6, was revealed by President Bush in his television address Wednesday night in which he announced that the U.S.-led coalition forces would end all offensive action at midnight Wednesday.

Israeli officials and pro-Israeli activists do not see the trip as the linkage between Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and the Palestinian issue unsuccessfully sought by Saddam Hussein.

They said they were not concerned as long as Israel was included in the trip.

“The question of linkage is irrelevant here,” said one Israeli Embassy official.

State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler brushed aside reporters’ questions asking if Baker’s trip would create the linkage between Arab-Israeli issues and Kuwait that Saddam Hussein has called for since he invaded Kuwait Aug. 2.

Tutwiler argued that unlike Hussein’s linkage, the Baker trip does not involve “conditions” that have to be met by any country.

The purpose of the 10-day trip is to conduct “true consultations” about regional issues following Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, said Tutwiler.

Baker will complete the trip by March 14 or 15, with the first stop in Saudi Arabia. Other countries he plans to visit are Egypt, Syria, Turkey and the Soviet Union. He also intends to meet with Kuwaiti officials somewhere in the Persian Gulf.

Tutwiler attributed the exclusion of Jordan from Baker’s itinerary to scheduling difficulties. Jordan, unlike the other Arab countries on the itinerary, was not a member of the U.S.-led allied coalition against Iraq and was considered sympathetic to Iraq.

During his trip, Baker will be “in a listening mode” during discussions on four key topics: regional security arrangements, arms control and proliferation, Arab-Israeli peace and regional economic cooperation, she said.

“The secretary and the president do not underestimate the difficulty of securing the peace, the challenges that will be involved and the problems that will need to be addressed,” she added.

In addition, she said, “the countries in the region will obviously have to take the lead” in creating a new Middle East.

The Israeli official said he found it “very interesting” that Bush called for new security arrangements for the Middle East in his speech Wednesday night. On that point, he said, “we are fully supportive of the administration.”

Another area that Tutwiler did not discuss but which will be on the table during Baker’s meetings in Israel is the possibility of new U.S. aid. Israel formally asked the United States last Friday for $1 billion to cover its added defense preparedness costs following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Last week, 22 of the 29 members of the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote Bush, asking him to “reimburse Israel for these incremental defense costs stemming from the Gulf crisis.”

CHANGE IN BAKER’S ATTITUDE?

On Tuesday, Budget Director Richard Darman was pressed by a handful of committee members, but made no commitments and said that for budgetary procedural reasons, the $1 billion could not be included in the so-called Operation Desert Storm supplemental appropriations bill working its way through Congress.

Tutwiler was asked if the Baker trip to Israel constituted a change in Baker’s attitude in light of his statement last June to Congress telling Israel, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”

“Obviously, the world is quite different than it was when he made that statement,” Tutwiler said. “There may be opportunities here, we do not know.

“The secretary of state has said for the last two years how much he very, very much wants to go to Israel, how he wanted to go when he was secretary of the treasury and at the White House. The trips got canceled on him,” Tutwiler said.

Pro-Israel activists here have been publicly critical of Baker for not having visited Israel. This became even more pronounced last fall, after both Baker and Bush met separately with Syrian President Hafez Assad.

For over a decade, Syria has been on the U.S. list of “state-sponsored terrorist” nations.

On one hand, Tutwiler said, “the secretary of state has made terrorism and our views on it very well known to President Assad. At the same time, President Bush and the secretary have been very appreciative that Syria throughout has been a strong and loyal member of this coalition and had troops on the ground.”

PARTNER FOR PEACE PROCESS

An Israeli official said that despite Syria’s terrorist past, “we don’t see (the visit) in this light.” If Baker wants to “visit the countries that were members of the coalition and start discussing with leaders of the region the aftermath of the war, why should he exclude a country that may be a partner for the peace process?”

For sure, the one place in Israel that Baker will not see is the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed from Syria. As was the case with Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, the United States does not recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan.

The Israeli official said Baker’s Israel itinerary is in “very preliminary” form. He said his colleagues in Israel would like to show Baker “things that are important when you make decisions,” including Israel’s topography in relation to its Arab neighbors.

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