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Israeli Shift on U.N. Role Rumored, but Shamir is Standing Firm for Now

There is growing speculation here that Israel may be prepared to soften its opposition to the presence of a “silent” United Nations observer at the Middle East peace conference the Bush administration is trying to arrange.

The Times of London, the Reuters news agency and other foreign media reported this week that if there are no other obstacles to direct to at least a symbolic U.N. presence at the proposed peace conference and will not insist that it remain strictly a one-time, ceremonial curtainraiser to direct talks.

But such reports, which cited unidentified Israeli officials, have received no corroboration from the Prime Minister’s Office, which maintains Israel is still opposed to any U.N. involvement in the proposed peace conference.

It is generally acknowledged that Israel faces tough decisions now that Syrian President Hafez Assad has reportedly responded positively to President Bush’s proposals for resolving the procedural obstacles to a peace conference.

Israel does not want to appear to be the chief impediment to a peace conference, especially if Syria is truly interested in direct negotiations with the Jewish state.

But it is also not yet convinced of Assad’s sincerity about entering into direct talks with Israel, an idea he had long opposed.

Knowledgeable sources here and in Washington say that Israeli leaders will not be prepared to contemplate any shift in Jerusalem’s position on a U.N. role until some key questions are answered by U.S. Secretary of States Baker, who arrives here Sunday night.

DANGER OF ALIENATING THE RIGHT

Any shift in Israel’s position on U.N. involvement would alienate the right-wing parties in Shamir’s Likud-led coalition and likely bring down the government.

But at least one of those parties, Tehiya, appears to be satisfied for now that Shamir has no intention of backing down from his original stance.

Tehiya Knesset members Geula Cohen, Gershon Shafat and Elyakim Haetzni emerged from a meeting with Shamir on Wednesday saying they were relieved at the prime minister’s assurances.

“We feel that we still belong with the government,” said Shafat. But he added, “We still don’t know what will be the content of (Shamir’s) talk with Secretary of State Baker. Neither do we know what the Syrian response is and what the Israeli response will be.”

Shamir, meanwhile, was reported to be still bristling over a statement issued Tuesday by the leaders of the seven largest industrial democracies, calling on Israel to abandon its settlement-building in the administered territories and on the Arab states to drop their 43-year-old economic boycott of Israel.

The statement, issued by the seven powers at the end of their summit meeting in London, urged Israel and the Arab states to “adopt reciprocal and balanced confidence-building measures” to advance the peace process.

Shamir and his aides are furious that the Group of Seven-linked Israel’s settlement drive and the Arab trade boycott. They insist there is not-the remotest connection, noting that the boycott began almost simultaneously with the establishment of Israel in 1948, 19 years before Israel acquired the territories.

Shamir maintains that both issues belong on the negotiating table at Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Yossi Ben-Aharon, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, called their linkage “unfortunate.”

Ben-Aharon, a member of Shamir’s “inner circle” sometimes characterized as more hard-line than his boss, was reportedly unimpressed by the Syrian response to Bush and rejected the notion that it put Israel on the defensive.

The policy-making Inner Cabinet met for its weekly closed-door session Wednesday. Shamir reportedly asked the ministers to refrain from commenting about the Syrian reply to Bush and the U.S. president’s enthusiastic reaction.

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