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Baker Says He’ll Return to Mideast for Fourth Try at Peace Diplomacy

Secretary of State James Baker will return to the Middle East this week for another try at bringing Israel, its neighboring Arab states and the Palestinians to the peace table.

Baker told reporters Monday that both he and President Bush agree that “as long as there’s any hope for progress toward peace in the Middle East,” the United States will continue the effort.

“I have discussed this at quite some length with the president,” Baker said while welcoming visiting former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to the State Department.

Baker had briefed the president on his Middle East trip last week. But he also said that he spoke Sunday by telephone with Bush, who was at Bethesda Naval Hospital being treated for an irregular heartbeat, which struck him while jogging at Camp David.

Bush was back at the White House on Monday morning in time for his own meeting with Shevardnadze.

State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher said Baker will leave Friday on his fourth trip to the Middle East since the end of the Persian Gulf War.

The secretary will go to Israel, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, Boucher said. Not mentioned was Saudi Arabia, which during Baker’s last trip said it would not participate in the peace process.

During his upcoming trip, Baker said he hopes to meet the current Soviet foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh, who is touring the region. Bessmertnykh is scheduled to visit Israel on Friday, becoming the highest-ranking Soviet official to ever visit the Jewish state.

“It will be my hope and belief that I’ll have an opportunity to meet with Minister Bessmertnykh during the course of this trip so that we can continue to try to coordinate our efforts to promote a peace conference jointly sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union,” Baker said.

He said such a conference would be “a very, very broad conference of a nature and type that has never taken place.”

‘WE STILL NEED SOME ANSWERS’

Israel has accepted the idea of a conference sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union, but only if Moscow resumes full diplomatic relations, broken during the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel has even agreed to allow some sort of European Community participation.

But Israel wants the peace conference to adjourn after a brief ceremony and then begin direct negotiations with each of the Arab countries participating, as well as the Palestinians.

Israel rejected Baker’s last proposal that the conference be reconvened if no settlement is reached in six months.

This proposal was seen as a means of appeasing Syria, which rejected the conference under U.S.-Soviet auspices and insisted on the sponsorship of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Yet when Baker broke off his last Middle East trip because of his mother’s death April 26, he left the impression that it was Israel that was responsible for the impasse.

“We still need some answers from the Israeli government relating primarily to the modalities before we can move the process forward,” State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said as the Baker plane was leaving Israel.

The secretary would not say Monday whether he was optimistic about a peace conference. But he said he has reason “to think that we should continue this effort, that it is worth continuing and that there is some chance we might be successful.”

Baker is expected again to bring up the administration’s opposition to building or expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli government has been accelerating the process under Sharon’s prodding.

As he did before his last three visits to the Middle East, Baker stressed Monday that the United States cannot impose peace on the Middle East. Peace can only be achieved if all the parties to the conflict want it.

But Shevardnadze, in a speech to the Brookings Institution, stressed the need to move faster for a solution.

“Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians have got to overcome this psychology of confrontation and a fateful belief” that the issues between them cannot be resolved, he said.

“The world has changed, and the Middle East cannot remain a hotbed,” he said.

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