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Baker Planning Eighth Mideast Trip to Resolve Peace Conference Issues

Secretary of State James Baker, hoping to get a Middle East peace conference going this month, is returning to the region next week for the eighth time this year, the State Department announced Tuesday.

Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Baker, who will visit Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Syria, plans to deal with issues “that must be resolved before the issuance of invitations” for a Middle East peace conference.

She did not say what those issues are, except to comment that Baker is “working on a number of letters of assurances with various governments.”

But the key outstanding issue is the composition of the Palestinian delegation to the talks. In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on Monday said his government is still seeking assurances on a number of other procedural issues, including its request that the conference not reconvene once direct negotiations begin.

President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev this summer called for the peace conference to take place in October, and “that’s still what we’re working toward,” Tutwiler said.

She refused to confirm a report in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot that the conference will take place in the Hague on Nov. 5 and not, as rumored in some quarters, on Oct. 29 or 30 in Switzerland.

“I have nothing for you on venue, and I have nothing for you on timing,” Tutwiler said.

The Bush administration is trying to form a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation to represent the Palestinian position at the peace talks.

To further that goal, Baker will be meeting soon with Palestinian representatives Hanan Ashrawi and Faisal Husseini in either Washington or Jerusalem, Tutwiler said.

In Jerusalem, Husseini was quoted Tuesday as saying that he and Ashrawi would leave Wednesday for Washington.

‘A MATTER FOR THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT’

Israeli law enforcement authorities on Tuesday met with the two to question them about charges that they attended a meeting in Algiers last month of the Palestine National Council, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s so-called parliament-in-exile. Israeli law forbids Jews and Arabs under its administration from making contact with the PLO.

An official at the Israeli Embassy here confirmed Tuesday that the two were interrogated in Israel. “I’m aware of the fact that there was a police investigation and nothing beyond that,” the official said.

Tutwiler would not comment when asked about the Israeli inquiry. “That is a matter for the Israeli government,” she said.

Israel has made clear it will refuse to participate in any peace conference that involves Palestinians claiming to represent the PLO. On that issue, Tutwiler said Tuesday that Israel will not have to sit down at the peace conference with “anyone they don’t want to.”

But when asked if Israel might interpret that to mean it can exercise a veto power over possible participants, Tutwiler would only say that U.S. policy has not changed.

Baker is reportedly considering issuing invitations to a peace conference at the end of the month, even if his trip to the region next week fails to close the gap on the outstanding issues.

When asked about that possibility, Tutwiler said, “That will be a decision for him to make and something I couldn’t prejudge.”

She also would not say whether this will be Baker’s final trip to the region before invitations are issued.

The invitations will be sent by Bush and Gorbachev. While there is speculation that the two will preside at the conference, a more likely scenario is that their foreign ministers will attend instead.

The Israeli government has yet to make a “firm decision” about requesting from Washington either a letter of assurances or a memorandum of understanding that would help lay out the two countries’ positio is going into such a conference, Tutwiler said. “I have not ever heard it discussed,” she said.

The difference between the two is that a memorandum of understanding is signed by two parties, whereas a letter of assurances would be a unilateral statement, from the United States to Israel.

An Israeli Embassy official said Tuesday that the issue has yet to be worked out between Baker and Shamir.

Baker “has said publicly in his last visit that whichever each government wants, it’s up to them, and he will work on whichever it is they decide,” Tutwiler said.

The State Department spokeswoman also denied a news report that Jordan has had its letter of assurances spelled out.

“I have seen so many reports of what is in so many different letters of assurances. Bits and pieces might be correct, but so far I have never seen anything that comes close to being totally correct,” she added.

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater had no particular response when asked about Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s statement Monday that by requesting a delay in congressional action on a package of loan guarantees for Israel, Bush had caused the Jewish state “disappointment and grief.”

“It serves no purpose to respond to his comments,” Fitzwater said.

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