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Baker and Soviet Wax Optimistic Despite Apparent Lack of Progress

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The busy paths of James Baker and Alexander Bessmertnykh crossed for the second time in less than a month Monday in the offices of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Cairo’s Ittihadya Palace.

The two traveling diplomats, who last met April 25 in the Soviet Caucasus, and the Egyptian chief of state smiled happily.

But judging from the substance of their remarks to the news media, their apparent good humor had less to do with progress toward Middle East peace than with the tasty lunch laid out by the presidential chef and the fact that the palace air conditioner was working in the scorching 99-degree heat.

There was no drama. No breakthrough. Only the cautious optimism every diplomat wears like a badge.

At the end of the working lunch, the Soviet foreign minister, usually quite talkative, left the palace without a word to reporters.

Baker appeared on the palace veranda with Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel-Meguid at his side. Mubarak, as usual, stayed in the wings for this part of the show.

The American secretary of state summed up what he said were the two major obstacles to a Middle East peace conference:

* The differences between Israel and Syria over U.N. involvement in the conference.

* The nature of the conference, whether it would be a one-time event, as the Israelis insist, or an ongoing forum, favored by the Arabs and the Soviets.

The question of Palestinian participation remains unresolved, Baker reported.

With respect to the first stumbling block, he acknowledged “significant differences” between the Syrians and Israelis, an understatement considering he got nowhere in a six-hour meeting Sunday with President Hafez Assad in Damascus.

SOVIET TO MEET WITH ARAFAT

Baker was to visit Jordan on Tuesday and fly to Jerusalem later in the day for his fourth round of talks with Israeli leaders.

His Soviet counterpart left Cairo on Monday for Saudi Arabia. Officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization said he would meet PLO chief Yasir Arafat at the Soviet Embassy in Geneva on Tuesday.

Baker intoned the standard note of optimism. There are “far more issues with respect to which there is agreement, than there are issues with respect to which there is no agreement,” he said.

He did not estimate their relative weights but said he would continue his efforts to narrow the gap between them.

Baker, repeating a statement which has become the leitmotif of his mission, observed that “nobody can impose peace on the parties. They’ve got to want it.”

Abdel-Meguid told reporters, “There are still, some problems but we don’t consider them insurmountable. We think the United States is very serious in its efforts, and we will continue to work hand-in-hand until we see a peace conference start.”

But Cairo seems to be taking a passive role at this juncture, being content to play host to the two superpowers and give them its blessing.

Foreign Minister Abdel-Meguid is expected to leave office after he is elected secretary-general of the League of Arab States on Wednesday. Mubarak leaves for Europe on Thursday to discuss ways to repay Egypt’s huge foreign debt.

The Egyptian line has been: Let the big guys try to deliver the goods. And if they fail, the blame will certainly fall on the shoulders of Israel.

That attitude was expressed by a cartoon Sunday in the weekly Rose el-Yussuf.

It shows the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, offering the Arab world “land for peace.” His right hand holds a knife and the other points at the piece of land he is willing to offer: a graveyard.

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