JERUSALEM (Apr. 8)
The Israeli government appeared poised to undertake a series of “confidence-building measures” to advance the Middle East peace process as U.S. Secretary of State James Baker arrived here Monday evening for talks with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his aides.
Baker arrived for two days of talks aimed at clearing the way for a regional peace conference to be convened by the United States, possibly in cooperation with the Soviet Union. It would serve as a curtain raiser for parallel direct talks Israel would conduct with the Arab states and with the Palestinians.
But Israel was expected to insist on ironclad guarantees from Baker before committing itself to such a conference. It also wants to know from the Americans what goodwill gestures the Arab states are prepared to make to provide a conducive atmosphere for the peace talks.
Baker himself has suggested a lifting of the 40-year Arab economic boycott of Israel.
Justice Minister Dan Meridor, a close confidant of the prime minister, said Monday evening that Israel was awaiting with interest to hear what new readiness for progress the secretary could report from the Arab side.
Shamir spent considerable time Monday conferring with his two chief collaborators in the government, Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Moshe Arens. They decided to nail down the United States on the precise nature of the proposed regional conference, media reports said.
Shamir himself confirmed to reporters Sunday that a regional conference was one of the ideas under discussion, but he gave no details.
1,000 PRISONERS TO BE RELEASED
As for confidence-building measures, the army radio reported Monday that “many hundreds” of detained intifada activists would be freed. In addition, Palestinian universities in the West Bank will be reopened for the first time in the three years since the intifada began, the army radio reported.
There was no official confirmation of these moves. But a few hours before Baker’s scheduled arrival, the Defense Ministry announced Arens had just approved the release of 1,000 prisoners and detainees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Arens’ media spokesman, Danny Naveh, insisted the release had nothing to do with Baker’s visit, but was a sort of amnesty on the occasion of the Moslem feast of Id al-Fitr.
A Defense Ministry communique later stressed that none of the persons freed was involved in murder or physical offenses, and that they had served most of their sentences anyway.
The communique said the defense minister also decided on tax reform to remedy the severe economic deterioration in the administered territories since the Persian Gulf war, when Palestinians were confined to their homes by curfew.
Israel Radio had said earlier that Defense Ministry officials were working on plans for new economic development in the territories and that the entire package of “confidence-builders” would be presented to Baker during his visit.
The secretary was to meet separately Tuesday with Shamir, Levy and Arens, as well as with the same group of Palestinian leaders he received when he was last in Jerusalem on March 12.
Israeli sources said Baker would probably have a concluding meeting Wednesday morning with Shamir, Levy and Arens before taking off for Cairo and Damascus.
The sources said Shamir is not necessarily opposed to a regional conference under joint U.S.-Soviet auspices, provided it is a one-time, formal opening event, followed immediately by direct talks.
Because they want to be sure there are no subsequent “misunderstandings” with Washington, the Israelis would like the Americans to assure them on these points in writing.
PALESTINIAN REPRESENTATION PROBLEMATIC
The sources also said Israel continues to oppose the participation of any Palestinian representatives from East Jerusalem and would insist that a Palestinian delegation from the administered territories contain no representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The issue of Palestinian representation stalled the diplomatic process a year ago. And Israeli commentators speculated Monday that it could very well be a major obstacle again.
They pointed out that the Palestinians with whom Baker met last month and would meet again Tuesday include East Jerusalem activist Faisal Husseini, whom Shamir has dismissed as “no better than (Yasir) Arafat,” the PLO chief.
Another problematic issue expected to arise is Washington’s request that Israel issue a categorical commitment to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
Israeli ministers say they are committed insofar as the Camp David accords recognized the resolutions as a “basis” for the peace process. But the Shamir government is unwilling to accede to the U.S. interpretation of 242 as a mandate to trade land for peace.
Levy reportedly advised the prime minister Monday that Israel should sidestep that issue for the time being and concentrate on efforts to build confidence for a regional conference leading to negotiations.
The French news agency Agence France-Presse reported last week that the Israeli government has already presented the United States with proposals for a Mideast peace conference.
According to the AFP, citing highly placed Israeli officials who requested anonymity, the Israeli plan is notable in that for the first time it calls for a preparatory meeting, likely to be held in Cairo, which would include Israel and the Arab countries.
But Israel proposes that the Arab countries first declare publicly an end to their state of war with Israel and renounce acts of terrorism and violence against it.
There was no confirmation of the reported plan from Israeli officials. But according to AFP, the Israelis envisage a meeting with Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.