Israelis Make Progress with Baker on Terms of a Regional Conference

Israeli leaders appear to be satisfied that their talks Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker will lead to a revival of the Middle East peace process along lines favored by Israel.

But six Palestinian dignitaries from the administered territories who also met with Baker — with a green light from Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat — expressed bitter disappointment with what they heard from the secretary.

They came to present Baker with a memorandum demanding American pressure on Israel. They were told there would be no pressure, no U.S. dialogue with the PLO and no recognition of a Palestinian state.

Baker met separately with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Moshe Arens.

The Israelis seemed pleased that a measure of progress was made toward a regional peace conference that would for the first time bring Israel and all of its Arab neighbors to the negotiating table.

A senior U.S. official who briefed reporters said the United States and Israel agreed in principle to a regional peace conference, but “the details, format, location, timing, participants –none of these were worked out.”

But Israeli officials said progress was made on the difficult question of Palestinian representation at the conference and in subsequent bilateral talks with Israel.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, told army radio Tuesday that Washington “agrees at this time” with Israel’s insistence that no resident of East Jerusalem be included in a Palestinian delegation. Israel fears allowing such participation would undermine Jerusalem’s status as the united capital of Israel.

NO ‘DIASPORA’ PALESTINIANS

Israeli officials said they were also very pleased by U.S. backing of Israel’s opposition to the presence of “diaspora” Palestinians in the delegation, meaning Palestinians not living in the administered territories.

They said there was a “meeting of minds” on the need to exclude the PLO from direct or indirect involvement in future peace talks.

Levy in particular radiated optimism and good cheer after his session with Baker. He spoke almost jubilantly about the “nearness” of “the good news all Israelis desire, the news of peace.”

Somewhat more circumspect, Shamir described his talks with Baker as “good,” “between friends” and “profound and fundamental.”

Baker himself spoke cautiously. “I agree we have had a productive and very constructive meeting this morning, and I don’t wish to diminish that in any way by saying that there is a long, long way to go,” the secretary of state told reporters.

“There are many, many parties involved. There are a lot of questions before us that have to be addressed and that have not been resolved, so I hope there is no rush to judgment,” Baker said.

He noted he was due to go to Cairo and Damascus after leaving Jerusalem, “hoping very much to develop a plan that will ultimately lead to peace in this region.”

The secretary held out the possibility of a return visit to Jerusalem from the Arab capitals before going back to Washington.

Baker met with the Palestinians at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. There were only six this time, compared with the 10 who came to meet him there on March 12, during his last previous visit to Jerusalem.

The delegation had the same leader, Faisal Husseini, an East Jerusalem Palestinian activist well respected in some Western circles but deemed a terrorist agitator by some in the Israeli government.

READY TO TALK TO ‘THE ENEMY’

The meeting had Arafat’s personal blessing. He told the BBC Tuesday that the PLO is now willing to talk “to the enemy,” meaning Israel.

There was nothing remarkable in that declaration inasmuch as the PLO’s official policy has been supportive of negotiations since the last meeting of Palestine National Council in November 1988, when Arafat recognized Israel’s right to exist.

But Arafat replied “No” when asked by the BBC about the possibility of a two-track dialogue, where Israel holds separate but parallel talks with the Arab states and with Palestinians.

The PLO envisions an international conference under U.N. auspices that would lead to a Palestinian state.

The Israelis have a different sort of conference in mind and absolutely rule out Palestinian statehood, as well as any negotiations with the PLO.

Activist Husseini expressed disappointment with Baker’s views, which seemed to be in line with Israel’s positions.

Speaking to reporters in Hebrew, he said he was unhappy with the idea of a regional conference. Unlike an international conference, it would exclude the European countries, which, in his view, have a more balanced attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian dispute than Washington has.

Husseini stressed at the meeting that his delegation was speaking on behalf of the PLO, with the approval of PLO headquarters in Tunis.

He claimed therefore that this second meeting with Baker in less than a month was a de facto resumption of the U.S.-PLO dialogue the Americans broke off last June.

The State Department flatly denies this.

In addition to Husseini, the Palestinian delegation included Dr. Khaidar Abed a-Shafi, chairman of the Palestinian Red Crescent, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, in the Gaza Strip; Dr. Zakaria al-Agha, also from the Gaza Strip; Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij; Maher al-Masri of Nablus; and Mustafa Abed a-Nabi Natshe, the former mayor of Hebron.

Freij, probably the most moderate in the group, said afterward that “a lot depends on what Israel is planning to do in the West Bank and Gaza. If they continue with their creeping annex- ation by building and adding more settlements, who can believe that Israel wants peace?” he asked.

The meeting with Baker was boycotted by Hamas, the militant Islamic fundamentalist movement, which rejects any dialogue with “heathens.” Hamas had made clear that its war is not just with Israel but with “the Jews, the brothers of the monkeys, the murderers of the prophets.”

Other elements, such as the Communists and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, contend there is no use talking peace while the United States shares Israel’s rejection of a Palestinian state and discredits the PLO.

RELEASE OF PRISONERS PROTESTED

There is, in fact, a bitter debate in the Palestinian camp on this issue, which is punctuated regularly by violence.

Three Arab residents of the administered territories were murdered on the eve of Baker’s visit because they were suspected of collaborating with the Israeli authorities.

Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry’s announcement, just before Baker’s arrival, that 1,000 Palestinian prisoners would be freed for the upcoming Moslem festival of Id al-Fitr, triggered fierce negative reaction among the more hard-line elements of Shamir’s government.

According to the Defense Ministry, none of the prisoners served time for murder or other violent crimes.

But Likud’s most vocal hawk, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, called the impending release “an act of massive irresponsibility” by the defense authorities in keeping with “the 40 months of disgraceful policy,” a reference to the Defense Ministry’s handling of the intifada.

Another Likud hard-liner, Knesset member Tzahi Hanegbi, filed suit in the High Court of Justice to block the release.

It was also attacked by Rehavam Ze’evi, a recently appointed minister without portfolio whose Moledet party advocates the expulsion of Palestinians from the territories as part of a peace settlement.

Geula Cohen of the pro-settlement Tehiya party criticized the idea of a regional conference. Another Tehiya Knesset member, Elyakim Haetzni, said the party simply would not support the present policy line.

For the time being, the dissenting voices do not worry Shamir. Some may even strengthen his position, allowing him to show Baker how thin a line he must walk to preserve coalition unity.

But if a full-scale rebellion over peace policy develops on his right flank, the stability of Shamir’s government will be endangered.

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