Mideast Peace Process ‘not Stuck,’ Levy Says After Meeting with Baker

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy emerged from talks Thursday morning with Secretary of State James Baker denying that the Middle East peace process is deadlocked, despite Israel’s refusal to meet U.S. requests for flexibility on certain procedural issues.

“The process is not stuck,” Levy told reporters after the meeting at the State Department, which last nearly two hours, about twice as long as scheduled.

But there was no indication from Levy or State Department officials that there had been any change on any of the issues that are dividing the United States and Israel.

Levy said the United States and Israel would remain in close consultations. He said he was assured that the United States would not surprise Israel with any new unacceptable proposals.

He made similar remarks late Thursday afternoon in New York, prior to an evening address before the 78th annual National Commission meeting of the Anti-Defamation League.

The State Department said Thursday that it does not consider the Middle East peace process to be over. Before the meeting, Baker told reporters that the United States will continue trying to bring about a peace conference as long as there is hope that such a meeting can be agreed upon.

A NUMBER OF MISUNDERSTANDINGS

The secretary assured a delegation of Jewish organizational leaders late Thursday afternoon that he personally remained committed to the peace process.

The nine-member delegation included leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, National Jewish Coalition and the United Jewish Appeal.

Earlier in the day, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said the peace process cannot be deadlocked, since Syrian President Hafez Assad has still not answered the letter President Bush sent him requesting flexibility on plans to convene a peace conference.

Bush sent similar letters to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and other Middle East leaders.

Tutwiler said Baker and Levy went over Shamir’s response to the Bush letter, which was sent at the end of last week. While the letter has not been officially made public, it is known that Shamir rejected U.S. proposals for having. a U.N. observer at the peace conference and for reconvening it periodically after direct negotiations begin.

Both proposals were offered to appease Syria, which wants the conference to be under U.N. auspices. Tutwiler made a point of saying that these two issues were discussed, but did not reveal anything further.

In his letter, Shamir also insisted on Israel’s right to veto anyone on the list of Palestinian delegates to peace talks, in order to prevent the participation of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“Israel will not sit with those it does not want to sit down with,” Levy said Thursday. “It will not be forced to sit with those it refuses to sit with.”

The foreign minister said Israel has “a number of understandings” with the United States on this point, but added, “I do not intend to go into details.”

Most observers here did not expect any changes on either side from the Levy-Baker meeting. It was widely believed that Levy was invited to Washington to hear Baker’s views on the Shamir letter and take them back to his government in Jerusalem.

Levy stressed Thursday that Israel has offered “practical steps” for moving the peace process forward, but nothing has been forthcoming from the Arab states.

When reporters asked Baker if he plans to make a fifth trip to the Middle East soon, he replied, “No.” But Levy said in today’s world leaders do not have to visit each other to be in constant close touch.

Baker also denied a report in an Israeli newspaper that Bush plans to invite Israeli and Arab leaders to a meeting at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

But Tutwiler left open as an option the suggestion that Bush might invite the Middle East leaders to a meeting at some other site.

Levy said he also raised with Baker Israel’s concern about Syria’s “takeover of Lebanon” and the buildup of armed terrorists in the southern part of the country.

“The fact that various militia and terrorist forces are allowed to keep their arms, the closer they are to Israel is a green light to attack Israel,” Levy said.

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