Baker Lands in Israel Amid Talk of Stepped-up Pressure from U.S.

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, in Israel for the third time in six weeks, got down to business almost immediately after landing Thursday evening at Ben-Gurion Airport.

He had his first informal meeting with Foreign Minister David Levy in their car driving to Jerusalem.

Baker, who was last in Jerusalem only eight days earlier, is pressing hard for a breakthrough before the “window of opportunity” for Middle East peace slams shut.

He was to hold talks Friday with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Levy and Defense Minister Moshe Arens. He was scheduled to meet Saturday with the same group of local Palestinian leaders he saw on his two previous visits.

Levy told reporters at the airport before Baker’s arrival that he hoped the secretary would be bringing “good tidings” from the Arab world.

After leaving Israel last week, Baker visited Cairo and Damascus. He will be visiting Arab capitals on this trip as well.

The foreign minister said he thought chances were good that a regional peace conference could be held, though there were still pitfalls to be negotiated.

He welcomed a statement by the Egyptian minister of state for foreign affairs, Boutros Ghali, indicating that Egypt supports the conference format.

PALESTINIAN LEADERS SUSPICIOUS

Shamir, in an Independence Day interview Thursday on Israel Radio, said he was confident Baker and the Bush administration do not intend to pressure Israel, because that would be counter-productive.

Reporters traveling with the secretary said his aides were stressing Baker’s comment earlier this week to the effect that progress toward peace in the Middle East would come only as a result of the United States and other countries “pressing” for it.

Israeli officials are concerned with what they see as signs the United States is backing away from positions it had previously agreed to.

They say Baker is prepared to accept an active European role in the regional conference, although Israel is opposed to it.

Israeli officials also fear that Washington has been influenced by Syrian President Hafez Assad to renege on its understanding with Israel that the regional conference would adjourn permanently after serving as the ceremonial opening for bilateral talks between Israel and the Arabs.

The Palestinian leadership also seems suspicious of the conference. Before agreeing firmly to meet Baker on Saturday at the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, they submitted a questionnaire to Consul General Phillip Wilcox.

The Palestinians want to know the nature of the proposed regional conference and what exactly is meant by the interim period of self-government Israel has proposed for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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