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Shamir Tells Bush Israel Opposes Any U.N. Role at Peace Conference

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Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reportedly has written a letter to President Bush saying that Israel will not agree to a U.N. role in the Middle East peace conference that the United States has been trying for months to arrange.

Quoting sources in Washington, Israel’s army radio station reported late Thursday evening that Shamir turned down Bush’s request that Israel consider allowing the United Nations to participate in such a conference as an observer.

There was no immediate confirmation or denial from the Prime Minister’s Office or the Foreign Ministry.

In Washington, Israeli Embassy sources confirmed that Shamir had sent a letter to Bush. They said the letter renewed Israel’s commitment to the peace process and stressed the need for face-to-face, bilateral negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Shamir’s letter was a response to one Bush sent last weekend to the prime minister asking for Israeli flexibility on the procedural obstacles to convening the peace conference. Similar letters were sent to the leaders of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Those obstacles are whether the United Nations should have an active role in the conference, which Syria insists on and Israel opposes, and whether the conference should adjourn once direct talks begin, as Israel insists, or reconvene periodically, as Syria has demanded.

Bush apparently sought to bridge the gap by suggesting that the United Nations have an informal, observer role and that the conference reconvene periodically, with the consent of all parties to the negotiations.

SYRIA SAID TO SOFTEN POSITION

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Thursday that Syria had softened its position and accepted this compromise. The paper said that would leave it entirely up to Israel whether a peace conference would be convened.

But Israeli Economics and Planning Minister David Magen was quoted on Israel Radio as saying that he would be surprised if Syrian President Hafez Assad had given Bush a positive response to his request for flexibility.

And knowledgeable sources said the Syrian government had not yet responded to Bush’s letter.

Earlier Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said a peace conference could be convened within three or four weeks, if Syria withdrew its conditions for participating.

Levy was said to be urging that the Israeli government be more flexible on the procedural issues. But it was unclear what role, if any, he had in drafting Shamir’s reply to Bush.

The mass-circulation tabloid Yediot Achronot reported Thursday that Shamir and Levy are currently at odds.

Levy returned Thursday from Paris, where he reached agreement with European Community foreign ministers on European participation in the proposed peace conference, which Israel had previously opposed.

The Europeans, Levy explained at an airport news conference, are ready to funnel billions of dollars in economic aid to the Israeli-administered territories and could hardly remain “mere bankers” without a diplomatic role.

But he insisted that the European presence at the conference would give the E.C. no right or opportunity to “interfere” in the substantive negotiations between Israel and its Arab partners.

Levy also emphasized that his agreement to allow the E.C. to appoint a permanent representative to the administered territories stipulates “a humanitarian presence only,” not a political mission to the Palestinians. He pointed out that the E.C. representative would be stationed in Israel proper.

According to Levy, his agreement with the E.C. was approved by Shamir. But it is still subject to ratification by the Cabinet, which Levy hopes to secure this Sunday. Although opposition from Ariel Sharon and other hard-liners is anticipated, the agreement is expected to win majority approval.

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