JERUSALEM (May. 15)
U.S. Secretary of State James Baker held three rounds of talks here Wednesday with Israeli leaders, but there was little indication he had managed to overcome the formidable obstacles to convening a regional peace conference.
Baker interrupted the talks to telephone President Bush in Washington, raising speculation that there had been a significant development.
But all Baker would tell reporters at the time was: “We are still working.”
The secretary of state met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens for two hours Wednesday morning. Later they were joined by Foreign Minister David Levy for another two-hour session in the afternoon. A third session was held in the evening.
Levy said there would be another round of talks Thursday morning, before the secretary’s scheduled departure for Washington.
Shamir’s media spokesman, Avi Pazner, described the talks as “businesslike,” a term that in diplomatic parlance usually means there are significant differences between the two sides.
Unconfirmed reports said Baker was trying to press Israeli leaders to sign a document specifying those terms of the proposed peace conference that Israel had agreed to.
There was also an unconfirmed report that Baker was considering sending a senior aide back to Jordan, where the secretary conferred Monday with King Hussein before coming to Israel. The ostensible purpose of such a trip would be to brief the king on Baker’s talks in Jerusalem and elicit a reaction from him.
But the report also touched off ripples of speculation that Baker might be seeking agreement on a “narrowly based” peace conference involving Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, but not Syria.
TREES PLANTED FOR BAKER’S MOTHER
The chief obstacle to the proposed wider conference is the dispute between Israel and Syria over its nature and duration.
Syria wants an active U.N. role and insists the conference be an ongoing affair, to which the parties could turn if they hit an impasse.
Baker failed to budge Syrian President Hafez Assad from that position during a six-hour session Sunday in Damascus.
Israel is equally firm against U.N. participation. It demands that the conference, which the United States and the Soviet Union propose to co-host, serve only as a one-time ceremonial opening for parallel direct talks with the Arab states and the Palestinians. It would disband once those talks had begun.
American and Israeli aides were reported to be working Wednesday night on a joint document specifying the areas of agreement and points of dispute between the parties.
There now appears to be a chance that Israel will relent on one of the other points of disagreement: a European role in the peace conference, which Jerusalem has so far rejected.
Levy joined the talks with Baker on Wednesday fresh from a meeting the day before in Brussels with the European Community foreign ministers.
He told reporters that Israel would be ready to let the E.C. play a part in the projected peace conference if it agreed to abide by the principles worked out to convene it.
In Brussels, the European ministers on Tuesday offered Israel what would amount to associate status in the E.C. if it accepted E.C. participation in the peace conference.
Whether or not agreement is ultimately reached on that point and others, it was clear that Shamir was doing his utmost Wednesday to make sure that the Baker visit did not turn sour.
Before their first working session Wednesday morning, Shamir handed the secretary of state a Jewish National Fund certificate indicating that 96 trees had been planted in JNF’s American Independence Bicentenary Forest near Jerusalem, in memory of Baker’s mother. She died last month at the age of 96 while the secretary was in Jerusalem.
Baker, deeply touched by the gesture, wrote Shamir a warm note of appreciation during the midday recess in the talks.