Soviet Tries to Soften Up Syria As U.S. Secretary Returns to Israel

The United States and Soviet Union appear to be engaged in a joint effort to salvage U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s faltering Middle East peace mission.

While Baker spent much of Tuesday in Jordan, before arriving in Israel, his Soviet counterpart, Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh made an unscheduled return trip to Damascus.

He was reportedly trying to persuade Syrian President Hafez Assad, Moscow’s closest Arab ally, to be more flexible on the issues surrounding the Middle East peace conference that the two superpowers propose to co-host.

Baker, who got nowhere in a six-hour session with Assad on Sunday, arrived in Israel on Tuesday evening by way of the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River. He was to meet Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and later with Foreign Minister David Levy.

But hopes were slim that the American and Soviet diplomats would be able to reconcile their respective clients’ fundamental differences over the nature and duration of the peace conference.

Baker started his fourth diplomatic round in Jerusalem by talking to Palestinian activist Faisal Husseini and two other local Palestinian leaders. He had met with Husseini on his previous visits to the city.

After leaving Syria, Bessmertnykh flew to Geneva for a meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat.

Baker had extensive talks with Bessmertnykh and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Monday. He told reporters before leaving that the most serious obstacle in the way of a peace conference was the dispute between Syria and Israel.

SMALLER CONFERENCE POSSIBLE

Syria demands an active role for the United Nations and insists that the conference continue beyond its formal opening. Israel absolutely opposes a U.N. presence because of the world organization’s alleged pro-Arab bias.

Israel also insists that the conference must be nothing more than a ceremonial prelude to parallel direct talks with the Arab states and with the Palestinians.

The Israelis reject a continuing conference that the parties could appeal to in an impasse. They want the conference to end as soon as direct talks begin.

While the Likud government is adamant on those points, Foreign Minister Levy is notably more flexible than Shamir, at least on the matter of duration.

Some Israeli officials speculated that the Americans and Soviets might try to hold the conference without Syrian participation if Assad and Shamir remained dug into their respective positions.

But that would leave only Jordan and the Palestinians as negotiating partners. Neither is considered likely to attend a conference of which Syria disapproved.

The latest stage of Baker’s shuttle diplomacy began more or less auspiciously last weekend with an agreement by Saudi Arabia and the five other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council to send an observer to the proposed peace conference.

Baker hailed it as an important step forward. But after his failed meeting with Assad, he was reportedly so despondent that he contemplated returning immediately to Washington.

By midweek, his mood seemed to have brightened, while Bessmertnykh absolutely radiated optimism in his public statements.

Baker’s talks with Shamir and other Israeli officials on Wednesday and Thursday morning were expected to determine whether he pursues or abandons his peace mission.

ANOTHER SETTLEMENT GOES UP

Meanwhile, that mission was dogged by a familiar irritant.

Only hours before Baker arrived in Jerusalem, a cluster of mobile homes were set up in the West Bank about six miles north of the city, signifying yet another Jewish settlement in the territory, which in Washington’s eyes are an obstacle to peace.

Named Givon ha-Hadasha, it was the third settlement to be established as Baker shuttled between Jerusalem and Arab capitals during the last two months.

The Likud government is committed to new settlements and rejects the principle of territorial concessions for peace. The opposition Labor Party is more flexible on both issues.

Shamir and Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres met privately for a 45-minute chat Tuesday in light of the opposition leader’s unscheduled meeting with President Bush at the White House last week. Peres was conferring with National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft when the president walked in on them.

Peres reported Tuesday that he and Shamir did not discuss another Labor-Likud unity government, but he pledged Labor’s support for the present government as long as it makes progress toward peace.

That promise is considered an important counterweight to right-wing pressure within the ruling coalition to keep Israel from attending the proposed peace conference.

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