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Baker May Return to Mideast to Finalize Peace Conference

Israeli officials have been advised by the Bush administration that Secretary of State James Baker may return to the Middle East as early as next week to lock up procedural agreements on the regional peace conference planned for October.

It would be Baker’s sixth trip to the region since the Persian Gulf War ended in March. The trip hinges on whether the situation in the Soviet Union has stabilized sufficiently for Baker to absent himself from Washington.

The United States and Soviet Union agreed last month to co-sponsor the peace conference, which is intended to lead to direct talks between Israel and the Arab states and the Palestinians.

The failed military coup by Communist hardliners in Moscow last week put the peace conference suddenly in doubt. But the two superpowers have since indicated they plan to hold the conference as scheduled.

Israeli officials expect Baker to focus on the still-unresolved question of Palestinian representation at the negotiating table.

The Palestinians insist on a representative from East Jerusalem. Israel is equally determined to exclude East Jerusalem, which it considers its sovereign territory, from any negotiations.

Various compromises have been proposed. One would have an East Jerusalem-born Palestinian who resides in Jordan attend as a member of the Jordanian contingent of the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

NO MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING

Officials here are disappointed that the United States intends to give Israel only a letter of assurances regarding the terms of the conference, instead of a full-fledged memorandum of understanding between the two governments.

The letter is similar to what has been offered the Palestinians. Moreover, the Americans will not include in it an explicit understanding that Israel has the right to withdraw from the conference if the Palestinian delegates profess themselves to represent the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Baker’s trip would come in the midst of a flurry of diplomatic activity. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is scheduled to leave next week on an official visit to Bulgaria, the first ever by an Israeli prime minister.

Shamir will also play host to diplomats and heads of state from far-flung parts of the world during the next few weeks.

President Ion Iliescu of Romania is due here first on a historic state visit. He will be followed by the Italian foreign minister, Gianni De Michaelis.

President Carlos Menem of Argentina will also visit Israel soon, returning President Chaim Herzog’s visit to Buenos Aires 18 months ago.

It will be the first trip to Israel by an Argentine chief of state and is considered especially significant because Menem is of Syrian descent and has warm relations both with the Damascus government and Israel.

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