Baker Meets with Mideast Envoys Amid Apparent Shift from Syria

Secretary of State James Baker has begun a new round of Middle East diplomacy from Washington, but more interesting shifts appear to be taking place in the region itself.

Baker met Tuesday with Israeli Ambassador Zalman-Shoval-and Monday with a special adviser to Jordan’s King Hussein, Adnan Abu Odeih.

Also Monday, Osama el-Baz, a top aide to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, met with senior State Department officials and may meet later this week with Baker, said an Egyptian Embassy spokesman. Senior U.S. officials have been in touch with Saudi diplomats, as well.

But what seemed to have gotten even more notice was a statement made Monday by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Sharaa, who said his country is willing to participate in an international peace conference chaired only by the United States and Soviet Union.

A senior Israeli Embassy official found something positive in the Syrian statement.

Israel opposes international frameworks in principle, preferring direct talks with Arab parties. But the official said a conference under superpower auspices is “less ominous” to Israel than one under U.N. Security Council auspices, which would also include China, France and Great Britain.

Syria “would like to find a way that would be more convincing and less ominous to Israel,” the official explained, and a-Sharaa felt he could do so “by actually mentioning the two superpowers.”

‘NEW THINKING’ IN THE ARAB WORLD

An Egyptian Embassy official said there is a “new approach” and “new thinking” in the Arab world toward achieving an Arab-Israeli peace. The official cited a statement made Sunday on the CBS television program “60 Minutes” by the Kuwaiti ambassador, Sheik Nasir al-Sabah, who said Israel has the right to claim reparations from Iraq.

At the State Department this week, Baker and other senior officials have been meeting with Middle East diplomats as “part of our ongoing process and follow-through after Secretary Baker’s trip to the region” earlier this month, according to department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler.

“The purpose of these meetings,” she said, “is to begin the process of probing to see what they may be prepared to do.”

The Israeli Embassy official revealed that Baker asked each of the parties to respond to his suggestions as well to submit “their own ideas” to him. But the official said the secretary did not ask for such responses by any specific date.

“I would characterize the phase that we are in now as trying to determine what the points of convergence are between the parties,” Tutwiler said.

In his meeting with Baker, Ambassador Shoval discussed the U.S. criticism Monday of Israel’s plans to deport four Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, who the Israel Defense Force says have conducted military operations for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Al Fatah branch.

The Israeli official said there was nothing “earth-shaking” in the Shoval-Baker discussion. “It was in line with the ideas which the secretary has discussed with the leaders in the region,” namely the U.S. conception of a “two-track” negotiating process involving Israel and the Arab nations, and Israel and the Palestinians.

The meeting took place after Shoval informed Baker that he was leaving for Israel this week for Passover and asked “on this happy note, if there is anything he can convey to the prime minister,” the Israeli official said.

The Egyptian official said his government has taken the position that “we still believe firmly that we can achieve peace in the aftermath of the Gulf war.”

The official said it is up to both the Arab countries and Israel to take the first steps toward peace simultaneously.

For its part, “The Arab world is more willing for negotiations” with Israel now than ever before, the Egyptian said.

At the same time, the official said that, absent an active peace process, the Arab countries will not forgo their boycott of Israel and companies that do business with it, or agree to repeal the 1975 U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism.

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