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Baker Flies from Syria to Israel in Hope of Finalizing Peace Talks

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker arrived Wednesday evening in Israel and immediately set about the task of determining whether the Palestinians had come up with a delegation that Israel would find acceptable for peace talks, now scheduled to begin Oct. 29 with a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Baker scheduled a late-night meeting at the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem with Palestinian leaders Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi and Zakaria al-Agha, with whom he met in Washington last week and in Amman, Jordan, on Tuesday.

Speculation was rife that the Palestinians had come up with a list of negotiators that would be acceptable to Israel. But one of those mentioned as a possible participant, Ziyad Abu-Ziyad, was quoted on Israeli army radio as saying no final list had been determined.

Israel has insisted that any Palestinians taking part in the proposed peace conference be part of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. It has also ruled out the participation of Palestine Liberation Organization members and residents of East Jerusalem.

Reports from Amman said Jordanian officials and PLO representatives had agreed that the delegation would be made up of equal numbers of Jordanians and Palestinians and would be headed by a representative from each side.

But it was not clear whether the Palestinians had dropped their demand that representatives from East Jerusalem be included in the delegation.

Abu-Ziyad warned that this issue could still be a stumbling bloc for the peace conference. But the solution to the problem could be provided by the Palestinian leader himself.

Abu-Ziyad lives in the Jerusalem suburb of Eizariya, which the Israelis consider part of the West Bank and the Palestinians regard as part of Jerusalem. Including him in the delegation could satisfy both sides’ concerns.

EXTENDED TALKS IN SYRIA

Baker arrived here somewhat later than expected from Damascus, after extending his talks there with Syrian President Hafez Assad.

At a news conference following some 12 hours of talks with Syrian officials, the secretary of state said, “We are still on course to hold a peace conference in the month of October.”

Baker said his only disagreement with Assad was the timing of negotiations of such issues as the Middle East arms buildup and water, which are separate from the peace talks.

Last week a Middle East regional meeting on the region’s scarce water problems, which was to have been held in Turkey in November, was postponed.

In Washington, Joyce Starr, a Middle East expert who heads the Global Water Summit Initiative, said the postponement was at the request of the U.S. government, which feared it might interfere with the peace process. The State Department would not confirm this.

Syria had said earlier that it would not attend the water conference if Israel took part.

At the Damascus news conference Wednesday, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said Syria was reluctant to agree to such regional talks because it considered Israel “intransigent.”

“That’s why we want to test Israeli intentions at the peace conference,” he said.

But when asked if he would shake Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy’s hand at the peace conference, Sharaa replied, “I would tell you frankly no, because this very hand is guilty” of depriving Palestinians of their rights.

17 POINTS OF ASSURANCE FROM U.S.

In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said it was possible that President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev would attend the opening of the peace conference in Lausanne. The two presidents will send out the official invitations to the conference.

But he stressed no final decision has been made on whether the two presidents would attend.

After the opening ceremony, which sources in Geneva said could last four days, Israel would negotiate face to face with each of the Arab states involved, including the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Levy told Knesset members Tuesday that Washington has broadly satisfied Israel’s request for assurances on the terms of the peace conference.

He made public 17 points in a U.S. letter of assurances to Israel which he said was satisfactory, although he said several of the points remained to be clarified.

Levy rebuked a reporter who asked later if Israel might balk at attending the conference if the clarifications were not forthcoming.

“Why do you ask such a question? I am confident that these remaining points will be ironed out during the secretary’s visit here,” the foreign minister said.

Baker was to meet Thursday with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and other ranking Israeli ministers. The American diplomat was to be joined here Thursday or Friday by the Soviet foreign minister, Boris Pankin, who was expected to reinforce U.S. pressure on Israel to drop its reservations over the peace conference.

There was hope that Pankin would offer the immediate restoration of full diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel as a sweetener. But reports surfaced midweek that the Soviets might delay re-establishing ties until the peace conference begins.

(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents David Friedman in Washington and Tamar Levy in Geneva.)

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