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News Analysis: Complaints of a U.S. Policy Shift Surface As Baker Heads for Israel

The latest round of talks between Secretary of State James Baker and Israeli leaders gets underway here Friday in an atmosphere troubled by fundamental policy differences between key Cabinet members and unofficial Israeli accusations that the United States is reneging on some of its previous agreements.

In an off-the-record briefing in Washington this week, an unnamed “senior Israeli diplomat” claimed that the Bush administration seemed to be “backing away” from two major points discussed with Baker during his visit to Israel last week.

According to the anonymous official, the points at issue are Palestinian representation and the scope of the proposed regional peace conference that Israel has agreed to in principle.

The briefing, which must have received a “green light” from Jerusalem, appeared to be a way of drawing attention, before the talks with Baker resume, to what Israel finds unacceptable.

Officially, government sources here refused to comment Wednesday, saying they will wait until Baker raises the points.

Nevertheless, complaints have surfaced here that the Americans are not sufficiently discouraging their European allies from pressing for a role in the peace conference. Since Israel opposes a broader international conference, it does not want the Europeans to get involved.

The Israeli diplomat attributed the perceived American shift to the influence of Syrian President Hafez Assad, with whom Baker had a lengthy talk after leaving Jerusalem last week.

Assad reportedly demanded that the conference framework remain intact beyond the ceremonial opening session and that there be a United Nations or European Community component in addition to the United States and Soviet Union.

EUROPEANS WANT A ROLE

Reports from Brussels and Luxembourg indicated that the E.C. leaders were also insisting on a leading role in the peace conference. They were expected to press Baker on the matter at a meeting with him Wednesday evening in Luxembourg.

The E.C. leaders reportedly rejected an offer, made earlier this week in London by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, to grant the E.C. observer status at the proposed conference.

Israel says the agreement it reached with Baker last week was that the conference would be a brief ceremonial opening hosted jointly by the two superpowers. It would then dissolve permanently while Israel engaged in separate but parallel talks with the Arab states and the Palestinians.

Jerusalem says its agreement to the conference in fact hinges on its entirely ceremonial and temporary nature. Israel would not accept a conference able to reconvene and impose its views on the parties in case of dispute.

The Israelis also firmly oppose the inclusion of Arab residents of East Jerusalem in the Pales- tinian negotiating team. They say that would implicitly undermine their claim to sovereignty over the entire city.

Yet Baker is now reported to be suggesting the inclusion of such personalities as Palestinian activist Faisal Husseini, an East Jerusalem resident, who could be part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation because he carries a Jordanian passport. According to the Israelis, that would be a legalistic attempt to get around their objections.

Baker is scheduled to meet again Saturday with the Palestinian group, led by Husseini.

‘READY TO DANCE’ WITH PALESTINIANS

Meanwhile, two rivals in the ruling Likud bloc, Foreign Minister David Levy and Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, feuded publicly this week, creating the impression of a government seriously divided over peace issues, just as U.S. shuttle diplomacy seemed to be gathering steam.

Levy accused his hard-line colleague Tuesday of “destructive conduct” that will “torpedo the ongoing peace efforts.”

He was responding to Sharon’s speech to the Likud party foreign affairs committee Monday night, in which he attacked Levy’s “zigzag policies.”

Sharon said the foreign minister, a former opponent of the official government peace plan, had become the party’s “biggest maker of concessions.”

Sharon leads forces within and outside the government who make no bones about their opposition to Baker’s peace moves and Israel’s positive responses to them so far.

He is also pushing a new settlement drive in the administered territories, in open defiance of U.S. policy.

The outspoken general and former defense minister accused Levy of being “ready to dance a debka with those Palestinians who danced on the roofs as the Scuds landed in Tel Aviv.”

A debka is an Arab folk dance.

Sharon targeted Levy’s strong advocacy of the government’s May 1989 plan, which would grant a modicum of self-government to Palestinians in the territories, and his support of the proposed regional peace conference.

Levy, in a spirited reply, insisted that his policies are fully consistent with the government’s guidelines. He said Israel has made no commitments “to anyone” not to build new settlements. But the questions of timing and rhetoric are important.

Without mentioning Sharon by name, the foreign minister deplored “those who make rash declarations and blow with shofars.”

FRICTION WITH SHAMIR

But in addition to confrontations with Sharon, signs of strain are developing in Levy’s relations with Prime Minister Shamir.

Sources close to Levy have complained to reporters that Shamir and his aides are often dismissive or even contemptuous of the foreign minister.

Levy also feels he is not being kept fully informed of Shamir’s separate conversations with Baker, the sources said. And the very fact that Shamir has excluded his foreign minister from his meetings with Baker is also deeply troubling to Levy.

Political observers say Levy’s high-profile espousal of a pro-peace position has become an embarrassment to Shamir, who must hold his right-wing coalition partners in line to preserve his government.

Sharon, for his part, also derided Defense Minister Moshe Arens for his decision last week to release some 1,200 Palestinians detained for intifada-related activity. The move was widely seen as a gesture toward U.S. opinion on the eve of Baker’s arrival.

The housing minister was cautious in his comments about Shamir, who was in London when the Likud committee meeting took place Monday night.

But he faulted the Likud leader for agreeing to use the term “self-government,” a switch Shamir said he made because “the Arabs don’t like the word ‘autonomy.’ “

“Is this the Likud?” Sharon asked, shaking his head in simulated bewilderment.

(JTA correspondent Yossi Lempkowicz in Brussels contributed to this report.)

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