Israel Braces for U.S. Pressure As Baker Heads for the Mideast

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir sought to assure his Cabinet ministers Sunday that they have no cause for alarm that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s two-day visit here spells new pressure on Israel.

Baker was due here Monday night from Turkey and was scheduled to leave Wednesday for Cairo, and possibly Damascus and other capitals in the region.

It will be the secretary’s second visit in less than a month and was announced in Washington only on Friday.

Shamir avoided a full-scale Cabinet debate in advance of the talks. He said he would hold consultations Monday with Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Moshe Arens, prior to working sessions with Baker on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the prime minister counseled his colleagues not to heed Israeli media speculation that Baker will upbraid the government over Housing Minister Ariel Sharon’s new settlement drive in the West Bank or demand a binding commitment by Israel to U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which stipulates that territory must be relinquished for peace.

Baker was last in Israel on March 11 and 12, at which time there was considerable talk here and in Washington of a regional visit later this spring or summer by President Bush.

The short time that elapsed since Baker’s last visit and the apparent haste with which his latest jaunt was arranged have given rise to speculation that the administration is seriously concerned that the opportunity to resolve the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian disputes is fast slipping away.

That was confirmed in Washington by Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, who said Sunday on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press” program that the administration fears the “window of opportunity” created by the Persian Gulf war will be lost.

‘WILLINGNESS TO TAKE HARDER STEPS’

“Whether there is also the willingness to take the harder steps that are necessary on each side is what we have to find out,” Scowcroft explained, adding, “That’s the reason Secretary Baker has returned only such a short time after his first trip.”

Scowcroft stressed that because of the successful outcome of the Gulf war, “there is probably as good a chance to make progress as there has been in the long and tragic history of that continent.”

But he warned, “This window of opportunity will not stay open long, and if everyone does not move now to take advantage of it, attitudes will slip back into the old intransigent mode.”

Regarding the substance of Baker’s talks here, the key issue appeared to be the idea of a regional conference, this summer, convened by the United States and possibly the Soviet Union.

It would be a curtain-raiser for the “two-track” approach, separate parallel peace talks between Israel and the Arab states and between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to American policy thinking, that approach needs to be preceded by “confidence-building measures” by Israel toward the Palestinians and by the Arab states toward Israel.

An example would be an end to the 40-year Arab economic boycott of Israel. Israel would be expected to show its good will by reopening Palestinian universities in the West Bank, closed since the start of the intifada in December 1987.

SETTLEMENTS WILL CONTINUE

Israel’s position prior to Baker’s last visit was wedded to Shamir’s May 1989 proposal, which envisaged Palestinian elections in the territories and a five-year interim autonomy period, as mapped out in the Camp David accords.

But the Bush administration has emphasized its view that the land-for-peace formula is central to any settlement.

The Likud government flatly rejects the principle. The Labor opposition professes to be much more flexible. But it is the Likud, with coalition partners even farther to the right, which governs Israel.

The contretemps between Israel and Washington over Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the administered territories will have to be resolved if the administration’s “window of opportunity” is to stay open.

Nearly 100,000 Jews presently live among 1.75 million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Housing Minister Sharon plans to double the Jewish population in two years with a massive building program and powerful economic inducements to settlers.

Washington, moreover, has seen Housing Ministry documents containing plans that appear to be a betrayal of Israel’s promise not to settle immigrants in the territories.

Asked how Israel would respond to a U.S. request to freeze settlement activity, Sharon replied in a radio interview Sunday that he trusts the premier to “make it clear” to Baker “that Israel has always built, is building and will in the future build” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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