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Baker and Levy Express Optimism About Chance of Progress on Peace

Foreign Minister David Levy and Secretary of State James Baker seem to share the view that a fresh breeze is blowing in the Middle East that could be harnessed for Arab-Israeli peace, though it necessarily would be a slow, arduous process.

Both men appeared hopeful at a joint news conference here Monday evening, encouraged, according to the Israeli, by signs of change in Arab positions. They met reporters after a working dinner at the King David Hotel, accompanied by their aides.

Baker arrived here Monday afternoon from Cairo, making his first visit to the Jewish state since taking office in 1989. Prior to Cairo he was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he met with the foreign ministers of eight Arab nations.

Levy said the information relayed to him by Baker regarding the Arab attitudes showed “encouraging signs that did not exist before.”

The United States would have to “work at developing” those signs, but “today we are closer than yesterday,” he said.

Baker said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the United States could “catalyze” progress toward peace by capitalizing on the postwar situation in the region and the “historic opportunities” it presents. He spoke more circumspectly of “signs of new thinking” and “a readiness to consider new approaches.”

Behind the euphemistic language of both diplomats was an awareness that the situation is delicate and that the immense power, prestige and influence Washington now enjoys in the region for its successful prosecution of the war against Iraq will not last forever.

NO ‘SPECIFIC BLUEPRINT’

Some Israeli sources claimed Monday that Baker brought “little of substance” in the way of new Arab commitments to make peace with Israel. They said the most he procured was a willingness to recognize Israel in return for full withdrawal from the administered territories.

The sources admitted, however, that if Baker had something more substantive to report he would deliver it first to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, with whom he was to meet Tuesday.

Baker stressed he did not carry “a specific blueprint” but came to the region to listen to ideas and explore his own with his hosts.

Levy described their initial meeting Monday as “frank, sincere and constructive,” which in diplomatic parlance indicates a lack of agreement.

But Baker did made a point of expressing Washington’s pleasure that the Israeli government had reaffirmed its May 1989 peace plan, which called for Palestinian elections in the administered territories leading to autonomy, and parallel negotiations with the Arab states.

Baker was to meet separately Tuesday with Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens before taking a helicopter tour over the central and northern parts of the country. Political observers believe his key working session would be a private dinner at Shamir’s home.

On Wednesday, before leaving Israel for Syria, Baker is to meet with Palestinian leaders, including nationalist activist Faisal Husseini of East Jerusalem and Elias Freij, the moderate mayor of Bethlehem.

Baker’s itinerary immediately after his arrival Monday afternoon was reserved for formal and ceremonial events. The secretary paid a courtesy call on President Chaim Herzog.

He and his wife, Susan, visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum, where they received a personal tour from its director, Yitzhak Arad. Mrs. Baker was seen weeping at a prayer and wreath-laying ceremony.

A guided tour of Jerusalem’s Old City with Mayor Teddy Kollek was canceled because of the tense situation. Kollek instead visited Baker in his suite at the King David Hotel.

The mayor said later their meeting was “very relaxed and pleasant.” He said that as a mayor he did not presume to dwell on broader aspects of the peace process.

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