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News Analysis: by Agreeing to Regional Conference, Israel Has Regained the High Ground

Israel seemed to have reclaimed the diplomatic high ground this week, as the Arabs gave a cool reception to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s proposed regional peace conference, which Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir endorsed Tuesday.

Egypt, by contrast, gave a tepid response to the plan, and Syria flatly rejected it.

For the time being, Israeli diplomats can enjoy the rare spectacle of watching the Arabs, not themselves, get prodded by the Americans to give a positive response to proposals for advancing the peace process.

The Israeli attitude is that they have provided Baker with the “merchandise,” and it is up to the Arabs to buy it.

But Egypt and Syria, recent combat partners of the United States in the war to oust Iraq from Kuwait, remain wedded to the idea of an international conference hosted by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, a scenario abhorrent to Israel.

Baker arrived in the Egyptian capital Wednesday from Jerusalem with Israel’s agreement in principle for a regional conference, to be convened jointly by the United States and the Soviet Union.

The timing, locale, composition and agenda of the conference have not been determined.

But Israel and the United States appear to have reached an understanding that the conference would be a one-time event with no authority to impose solutions.

Its purpose would be to serve as a ceremonial curtain raiser for direct negotiations Israel would hold separately with the Arab states and the Palestinians, the so-called “two-track” approach to peace.

But Baker, who said he was satisfied by the progress achieved with the Israelis, encountered stumbling blocks as soon as he landed in Cairo.

The first Egyptian reaction was that a regional conference would be a “waste of time.”

SYRIAN POSITION UNCOMPROMISING

Shortly after Baker’s plane landed, the Egyptian foreign minister, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, told reporters, “We are still waiting for details about this conference and the countries that will take part in it.

“We support the international peace conference and back holding it under the umbrella of the United Nations after good preparations,” Meguid said.

The reaction from Syria, next stop on Baker’s Middle East junket, was uncompromising.

Damascus accused Israel of trying to sabotage Baker’s mission. It said it would accept nothing less than a U.N. Security Council resolution mandating an international conference under U.N. auspices and Israel’s prompt withdrawal from all “occupied Arab lands.”

The Israelis were not surprised by the Syrian position. But Justice Minister Dan Meridor said it was hard to believe that Egypt, of all countries, “would make things more difficult rather than easier.”

Egypt is the only Arab state to have a peace treaty with Israel and full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

Israel and the United States, meanwhile, are reported to see eye to eye on the exclusion of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the peace process. Neither the PLO nor its representatives would take part in the talks.

But the Americans and Israelis were believed to have worked out a formula that would allow the participation of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem in a delegation of representatives from the administered territories.

That would open the door to Faisal Husseini of East Jerusalem, the senior Palestinian political figure in the area, whom the Israelis describe as an agent of the PLO.

Baker has assured Israel, however, that there would be no American dialogue with the PLO nor would Israel be forced into such dialogue.

NO USE OF WORD ‘AUTONOMY’

Israel and the United States were also said to agree that the negotiations would be conducted along the lines adopted at the Camp David conference in 1978. But Israel would refrain from using the term “autonomy” in connection with the territories, because it is unpalatable to the Palestinians.

The East Jerusalem Arabic daily Al-Fajr reported Wednesday that Baker proposed a three-year transitional period of “self-government” to the six Palestinian dignitaries he met with on Tuesday.

That would be followed by implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for the return of Arab land and for Arab recognition of Israel. Resolving the sharply different interpretations of 242 by Israel and the Palestinians presumably would be left to the negotiations.

Baker had a second meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on Wednesday before leaving for Cairo. No details were released.

He reportedly got assurances that the massive building plans in the West Bank announced by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon would not be implemented, because they need to be approved by the entire government.

The secretary of state paid a farewell call on President Chaim Herzog, whom he visited after arriving in Israel on Monday evening.

Israel, meanwhile, went ahead with a “confidence-building” gesture urged by Baker to help create a climate conducive to peace talks.

Some 240 Palestinian security detainees were released from prison, the first of nearly 1,200 Defense Minister Moshe Arens ordered freed on the occasion of Id al-Fitr, a Moslem festival next week marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Palestinians cynics remarked that the gesture had less to do with Id al-Fitr than “Id al-Baker.”

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