Baker Visit Likely to Put Pressure on Israel in Wake of Syrian Letter

Israel is expected to come under heavy pressure from the United States to drop its objections to U.S. proposals for a Middle East peace conference when Secretary of State James Baker arrives in Jerusalem on Sunday night.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater announced in London on Monday that Baker would make his fifth trip to the Middle East since the end of the Persian Gulf War because the United States had received a “positive” response from Syria to the U.S. proposals.

Syrian President Hafez Assad sent a letter to President Bush on Sunday that reportedly accepts the compromise formulation for convening a peace conference that the U.S. president outlined in a June I letter to Middle Eastern leaders.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir rejected the proposal in a letter to Bush last month, sent shortly after he received the president’s request for flexibility.

First reports from Israel indicate that while Jerusalem is waiting to see the contents of the Assad letter, it does not plan to back down from its rejection of Bush’s proposed compromise.

Assad’s reply to Bush came Sunday after weeks of asking Washington for various clarifications and assurances.

“This letter moves the Syrian government further than they have been willing to move in any peace process effort that I am aware of,” Baker told reporters at the State Department late Sunday before leaving for London, where an economic summit meeting of the seven leading industrialized nations opened Monday.

Baker said that he did not see any conditions in his first look at the letter, which he said was a long one, “However, I do think there are in there some suggestions that we would want to probe, to determine whether or not they are in any way conditions,” he said.

BUSH CALLS LETTER ‘VERY POSITIVE’

In London, Bush agreed with Baker that the letter is “very positive” but has to be studied further.

Fitzwater said that both Bush and Baker are now “hopeful that progress can be made and feel that it could be very useful for the secretary to meet again with the leaders in the region.”

Baker will leave for the Middle East after the economic summit ends Wednesday, going first to Syria, then Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan. He will therefore not accompany Bush on a scheduled trip to Turkey and Greece.

Baker presumably will disclose the contents of the Syrian letter when he arrives in Jerusalem at the end of Tisha B’Av, after having clarified it in Damascus.

In Jerusalem, the first public response was from Foreign Minister David Levy, who expressed the hope that the Assad letter represents a change “in the hard-line Syrian position.”

Defense Minister Moshe Arens said the Syrian letter could be “a very positive development.”

But they and other Israeli officials indicated that a positive response would require Syria to agree to direct negotiations with Israel.

Prime Minister Shamir was quoted as saying that if “the Syrian response allows the opening of direct negotiations without interlocutors, we will look upon it favorably, because, after all, what Israel has always wanted is to sit with the Arab states without prior conditions.”

DISAGREEMENT OVER U.N. ROLE

The U.S. proposals rejected by Shamir were for a United Nations representative to sit as an observer at the peace conference, which would be under the auspices of the United States and the Soviet Union, and for the conference to reconvene periodically if no progress is made in direct negotiations.

Israel wants the conference to serve only as a ceremonial opening for direct negotiations involving Jerusalem, the Arab states and the Palestinians.

The Shamir government is also adamant against any U.N. presence, even just an observer.

Syria, meanwhile, has insisted on the Arab demand for the conference to be held under the auspices of the five members of U.N. Security Council: the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China.

A senior official at the Israeli Foreign Ministry said Monday that Damascus reportedly has agreed that the peace conference would be a one-time ceremonial event and that there be a U.N. observers without powers at the talks.

Supporters of Israel in the United States are taking a wait-and-see approach, since no one has seen the contents of the Syrian letter.

“We hope that the Syrians are prepared to end their state of war with Israel and sit down and negotiate,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

There is uncertainty about how the Bush administration will react if Baker returns from the Middle East without any real progress. Bush warned at a news conference last month that if he felt that hope for progress toward Middle East peace was fading, he would go before the American people and assess blame for the stalemate.

(JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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