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Baker’s Planned Return to Mideast Bodes Well, Israeli Minister Says

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Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told the Knesset on Monday that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s imminent return to the Middle East bodes well for the peace process.

Baker found Israel favorably disposed to his efforts to get peace talks started and received “a positive response in several Arab lands, too,” Levy told the Knesset members, who interrupted their spring recess for a special session to debate Israel’s latest diplomatic moves.

Baker visited Israel and the Arab countries in mid-March. He was here again last week and will return at the end of this week.

Reports here said he was scheduled to land in Israel on Saturday evening. But in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler announced Monday that Baker would meet with Israeli leaders Friday morning, after meetings Wednesday in Luxembourg with the foreign ministers of the 12 European Community nations.

The secretary is also expected to visit Arab countries, but aside from the stop in Israel, Tutwiler would not disclose his itinerary.

Tutwiler told reporters Baker is making his third Mideast trip in less than two months, because “we do not want to somehow inadvertently miss an opportunity that may well be there.”

She repeated the U.S. view that a “window of opportunity” has existed in the region since the end of the war in the Persian Gulf.

“The president and the secretary believe that follow-up now directly with the parties is important if progress is to be made,” the State Department spokeswoman said.

Explaining why Baker finds a third trip necessary, Tutwiler said the parties to the conflict are “serious” about peace, and “the most effective way that most people communicate in something that is this intractable, this difficult, is in person.”

SETTLEMENT DRIVE CRITICIZED

In Israel, Baker’s early return was welcomed by Knesset members. Levy urged them “not to minimize the importance of the agreements we have reached with the United States.”

The foreign minister has been challenged by Cabinet hard-liners, notably Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, over the way he conducted the talks with Baker last week.

Sharon is especially angered by the government’s apparent acquiescence to U.S. insistence that the Palestinians negotiating with Israel represent themselves separately, rather than be part of a Jordanian delegation.

He is also concerned about Israel’s willingness to recognize U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which imply giving up territory for peace, as the basis of negotiations.

Levy stressed, however, “every party’s right to its own interpretation” of Resolution 242.

He also said Israel’s peace proposal of May 1989 is “alive and well” and had received plaudits abroad. The proposal would have the Palestinians in the administered territories elect representatives to discuss a limited autonomy arrangement with Israel.

Knesset member Gad Ya’acobi, speaking for the opposition Labor Party, attacked the government’s accelerated settlement drive in the territories, which he said is deliberately “planting a minefield in the path of peace.”

According to Ya’acobi, the entire Cabinet shares responsibility for Housing Minister Sharon’s activities in that respect.

He urged the government to accept the principle of land for peace, saying it is the only way to end the conflict and let Israel focus its energies and resources on immigrant absorption.

Avraham Poraz of the opposition Center-Shinui Movement questioned the government’s sincerity about peace, though he exempted Levy from his skepticism. Poraz said he hopes “American pressure will succeed in moving something.”

Sarah Doron, responding for Likud, delivered an impassioned defense of settlement activity. She said the government’s overriding responsibility is to protect national defense and that it is unacceptable for Jews to be barred from living anywhere in “Eretz Yisrael,” which includes the territories, in Likud’s view.

Young activists of the dovish Citizens Rights Movement and Mapam and Shinui parties disagree. They skirmished with security forces in the West Bank while protesting the government’s plans to build a new settlement, to be called Revava.

(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)

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