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Baker and Soviet Counterpart Will Meet This Week in Israel

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Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin will meet with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in Jerusalem at the end of this week, presumably to wrap up plans for the Middle East peace conference the United States and the Soviet Union hope to convene before the end of the month, it was announced here Monday.

Pankin is expected to use the occasion to announce the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Israel, broken by Moscow during the 1967 Six-Day War.

That long-pending move has been one of Israel’s major conditions for agreeing to participate in peace talks under joint U.S.-Soviet auspices.

The prospect of a foreign minister-level summit conference in Israel’s capital, probably this Friday, coupled with the renewal of diplomatic ties with the Soviets after 24 years, normally would have been greeted with elation in government circles.

The government also had cause for celebration after a Knesset no-confidence motion criticizing its handling of the peace process was handily defeated Monday.

But the mood in government circles is less than joyous. Ministers and officials who are committed to a peace conference in principle are talking increasingly of a sense of U.S. pressure over the preparations.

They see Pankin’s planned visit here as an effort to tighten the screws on Israel to agree to compromises before the conference opens.

Baker arrived in Cairo on Sunday to start his eighth peace mission to the region since last March. He met with President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Amre Moussa before leaving Monday for Amman, Jordan. He will be in Damascus Tuesday and is expected here on Wednesday.

TALKS ON U.S. ASSURANCES CONTINUE

There was speculation that Baker and Pankin might use the occasion of their meeting to issue invitations to the conference. But that is not considered likely until the two powers are certain all of the invitees will accept.

There is considerable groundwork still to be done with Israel and with the Palestinians, not to mention an increasingly recalcitrant Syria.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s office is engaged, through Ambassador Zalman Shoval in Washington, in hard bargaining with the Bush administration over drafts of a U.S. letter of assurances to Israel.

It is but one of several such letters Washington has promised all of the conference participants to assure them that their basic interests will not be compromised. The big problem is that conflicting promises seem to have been made to opposing parties.

Israeli sources say there has been “some improvement” in the administration’s drafts. But certain clauses are still unsatisfactory, especially those concerning the Palestinians’ role at the conference opening and in subsequent direct negotiations.

After Baker’s two days of discussions with Palestinian representatives in Washington last week, U.S. officials said they were “reasonably assured” that the Palestinians would begin formal discussions with Jordan shortly to form a joint delegation to represent them at the peace talks.

Palestinian activist Faisal Husseini said last week that the United States and the Palestinians had not yet resolved differences that would satisfy Palestinian participation in a joint delegation with Jordan.

Husseini spoke after meeting with Baker at the State Department last Thursday along with fellow Palestinian activists Hanan Ashrawi, Zakaria al-Agha and Sari Nusseibeh.

Baker told reporters before the meeting that the composition of the Palestinian delegation is “the major issue that remains to be resolved.” The other parties have “pretty much said that they would attend” the conference, he added.

He repeated his assertion that the Palestinians have the most to gain if a peace process unfolds, or the most to lose if it falters.

DISSENT WITHIN TEHIYA PARTY

Washington has assured Israel that the Palestinians from the administered territories will be part of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and that they will be “visibly” not members of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Israel was also promised that the Palestinian representatives will be unconnected with East Jerusalem, which Israel regards as sovereign territory, outside the scope of the negotiations.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy continues to exude optimism somewhat out of character with that of the general mood in his government and party.

In public comments here Monday, Levy played down differences with the Americans, predicted that Baker’s visit would resolve them and maintained that Israel is going ahead with “what is, after all, our initiative” in a mood of self-confidence.

The defeat of the no-confidence motions by a vote of 55-46 showed that the government is firmly in control of its coalition.

The far-right Tehiya party did not defect, as its three-member Knesset faction had been threatening to do unless the government renounced the peace conference.

Tehiya’s Knesset members were held in line by party leader Yuval Ne’eman, a professor of physics who is minister of science and energy.

Ne’eman, who does not sit in the Knesset, agrees that the peace conference is a trap for Israel set by Washington to impose a “Pax Americana” on the Middle East. But he seemed confident that it would not, in the end, materialize.

He exhorted his faction therefore to sit tight, explaining that there would be time enough to quit the government if Israel actually sat down at the peace table with the Palestinians or if territorial issues are discussed.

The two other far-right parties, Moledet and Tsomet, also voted with the coalition. The leaders of both, like Ne’eman, hold Cabinet posts, which they are not eager to give up.

(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)

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