JERUSALEM (Jul. 22)
Israel is expected to agree in the next few days to attend the Middle East peace conference that the United States has been trying to arrange since the end of the Persian Gulf War.
Remarks by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir at a Cabinet meeting Monday and to reporters later indicated that Secretary of State James Baker would soon have the favorable response he is seeking from Jerusalem, enabling him to start arrangements for the conference.
Shamir said Monday night that Israel and the United States had agreed on the key point that only residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip could represent the Palestinians at the proposed peace talks.
But the Israeli government is still seeking clarifications from the United States on a number of procedural issues, including the precise U.N. role and the circumstances under which the conference would be reconvened once direct negotiations among the parties had begun.
Assuming that the U.S. clarifications are acceptable, Israel will “consult and then respond” to the U.S. proposals to convene a conference, Shamir said. He would not say how long that might take, but officials here were speaking of days rather than weeks.
It is “very possible indeed” that Israel and the Arabs will be talking peace before the year is out, the prime minister told reporters at the festive opening here of the 77th annual convention of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization of America.
In Washington, White House National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft was quoted as telling reporters Monday that President Bush would like to have an Israeli response before he leaves for his summit meeting in Moscow next week with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
SYRIAN MOVE REPRESENTS ‘A CHANGE’
While the Israeli government was not ready to provide that response before Baker’s departure from Israel on Monday, it has clearly undergone a dramatic shift in tone, if not policy.
Syrian President Hafez Assad’s agreement last week to participate in the peace conference was greeted with strong skepticism by Israeli officials before Baker’s arrival here Sunday evening.
But Monday night, Shamir was describing it as “a change. Perhaps it is a tactical change, but it is still a change,” he said. He expressed hope that Syria would be among the parties talking directly to Israel in the near future.
The Israeli Cabinet met hours after Baker left for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The secretary told reporters at the airport that “a moment of historic opportunity” was at hand.
According to Baker, Israel stands at the threshold of achieving its long-sought goal of direct negotiations with the Arab states. “Now there is an opportunity to get these direct negotiations,” he said.
Baker left behind two senior State Department aides who will work with Israeli officials over the next few days on the clarifications Shamir needs before announcing his decision.
They are Dennis Ross, head of the department’s policy planning staff, and John Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.
U.S. officials here indicated Baker would like to have the conference in October. Shamir’s preferred venue was said to be Washington.
The prime minister was described as being in a “good mood” when he convened his Cabinet on Monday. He stressed the U.S. impression that Syria’s turnabout on negotiations was historic, adding that “Israel’s position is not at all bad.”
OPPOSITION FROM SHARON
His strongest support in the Cabinet came from Interior Minister Arye Deri of the Orthodox Shas party, who urged the government to set aside “technical issues” of procedure and announce its acceptance of the American plan without delay.
Deri believes the Syrian shift is genuine. But even if it is merely a ploy, it is Israel’s interests to accept and “put the ball back in the Syrian court,” the minister said.
Foreign Minister David Levy gave an upbeat summary to reporters after the Cabinet session. He said the United States had given no assurances to the Arabs, “and especially not to the Syrians, behind our backs.”
But the Cabinet is far from unanimous. Likud’s right-wing coalition partners, the Tehiya, Moledet and Tsomet parties, totally oppose the U.S. initiative.
Should Israel attend the peace conference, they, with their seven Knesset members, would pull out of the government, they warned.
Shamir also came under fire from Likud hard-liner Ariel Sharon and the minister of economics and planning, David Magen.
Both warned that the Syrian shift is more tactical than tangible, and they urged Israel not to accept the American terms for a conference.
Sharon, who is minister of housing, told an audience of Jewish settlers in the West Bank town of Efrat on Monday evening that “sadly there is no change. The Arab attitude continues to be one of unbridled hatred of Israel.”