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Bearing New Concessions from Arabs, Baker Begins Talks with Wary Israel

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Bearing new concessions from the Arab world, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker arrived in Israel on Sunday evening to face an Israeli leadership increasingly suspicious of Syrian motives and the U.S. incentives that may be driving them.

All he would say upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport was that it was “hot,” a word that seemed to describe both the weather and the political atmosphere.

Baker flew in from Amman, the Jordanian capital, where King Hussein indicated Sunday that his nation is ready to take part in a proposed peace conference with Israel.

The secretary received similar assurances Saturday from Saudi Arabia, after confirming Syrian willingness to negotiate with Israel during a visit to Damascus last Thursday.

His first meeting in Israel was with a group of West Bank Palestinian leaders, who have their own reservations about the peace conference scenario rapidly developing.

The scheduling allowed Baker to arrive at the Prime Minister’s Office after the end of the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av. He met there privately with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, but ended the meeting early because he was not feeling well. Talks were to resume Monday morning.

Aware that too much pressure on an already wary Israeli leadership could produce a backlash, Baker is expected not to press Shamir for answers before he leaves on Monday.

Sources speculated that the secretary might pay a return visit to Israel at the end of the week to obtain an answer to the key question of the moment: whether Israel will agree to participate in a peace conference with a silent United Nations observer.

REJECTS DEAL ON ARAB BOYCOTT

Shamir’s government has already responded negatively to another proposal a public offer by Saudi Arabia to end the 43-year-old Arab trade boycott of Israel if Israel stops building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Shamir and other senior ministers denounced the tradeoff on grounds that the issues are in no way connected.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens called the offer “more of a gimmick than a sincere proposal.”

While the idea infuriates the Likud regime and its right-wing partners, the opposition Labor Party seems amenable.

Yitzhak Rabin, Labor’s No. 2 leader and possible choice to head the party in the 1992 elections, urged the government in a television interview to agree to a six-month freeze on settlements in return for a freeze of the boycott.

“After six months, we shall see which way things are going,” Rabin said. He also appealed to the government to set aside “minor matters of procedure” and accept the American proposals for the peace conference.

A Labor Party no-confidence motion is to be heard in the Knesset on Monday afternoon.

If Baker and Shamir part without an accord, the Knesset will become the forum for the opposition’s attack on the government for missing what opposition circles see as an unprecedented opportunity to move toward peace.

Private diplomatic communications between Washington and Jerusalem in recent days have reportedly emphasized this same message in even starker tones, plainly implying that Israel’s failure to respond favorably would lead to a major crisis between the two governments.

ASSAD WILLING TO MEET SHAMIR

The American proposals, seeking to bridge over Israeli and Arab differences, call for a U.N. observer to attend the peace conference, with the same status as that envisioned for the European Community’s observer. That would be a lower status than the two powers hosting the conference, the United States and Soviet Union.

The U.S. proposals also call for the full conference plenary to reconvene periodically, but only with the consent of all the parties.

Until now, Shamir has opposed any U.N. role at the conference and any reconvening of it.

Syria had originally demanded an entirely U.N.-run conference, with the plenary in virtually permanent session. American diplomats say Damascus’ agreement to the new proposals represents a major concession by the hardest-line Arab state.

Reports from Washington said Syrian President Hafez Assad specifically wrote in his letter to President Bush last week that he is willing to meet face to face with Shamir, within the framework of the proposed conference.

The Americans, moreover, have been at pains to assure Israel and its friends in Washington that they have given no secret undertakings to Damascus to facilitate the Syrian turnabout.

Israeli leaders have grumbled during recent days that Washington has withheld from Israel the full text of Assad’s letter to Bush. But the United States counters that disclosure of such documents does not accord with accepted diplomatic practice.

Washington also denies that it has made a specific commitment to Syria to promote an Israeli return of the Golan Heights during the peace conference, even though the United States has never recognized Israel’s virtual annexation of the strategic territory.

PROBLEMS ON LEFT AND RIGHT

Settlement leaders in the Golan said Sunday they had been reassured by the Prime Minister’s Office that the territory remains an integral part of the state and will not be returned in the context of peace negotiations.

But Shamir has far more to be concerned about than the sentiments of those living there.

Observers described the domestic political situation here Sunday as “the quiet before the storm.” They predicted a forceful assault by the opposition parties if it turns out that Shamir offers no softening of his previous stance in response to the Syrian and Saudi concessions.

Labor leaders Shimon Peres and Rabin criticize Shamir for having insisted in the first place on Syrian participation in the peace process instead of agreeing to talks with Jordan and the Palestinians.

But having taken that position, they argue,

On the right flank, Shamir is under relentless pressure from his coalition partners not to make any concessions whatsoever. Yuval Ne’eman of Tehiya said Sunday he is hopeful that the prime minister will indeed stick to his guns. But if he does not, Tehiya, along with its allies, the Tsomet and far-right Moledet parties will walk out of the government, they say.

Some political observers predict that Shamir, faced with U.S. insistence on convening the conference, will precipitate a coalition crisis, dissolving the Knesset.

The government would become a caretaker regime, pending early elections, giving Israel a long breathing spell during which there could be no major diplomatic activity on the peace front.

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