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Baker Working to Surmount Obstacles to Peace Conference Before Weekend

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Racing against a deadline, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker engaged in marathon talks with Israeli leaders here Thursday.

But while “good progress” was made, according to an Israeli spokesman, there was no breakthrough.

After seven hours of meetings, the first spent closeted alone with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Baker was still unable to get Israel’s formal commitment to attend the Middle East peace conference that the United States and Soviet Union hope to convene Oct. 29 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Unless Israelis and Palestinians agree to attend, Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin, who arrived here Thursday, will not be able to announce the conference or issue the invitations this weekend, as they had hoped.

Baker had more talks scheduled with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who also met with Pankin on Thursday.

Shamir’s spokesman said a “wide array” of unresolved questions remained.

One is the U.S. letter of assurances that the terms of the conference will not compromise Israel’s vital interests.

Zalman Shoval, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, told Israel Radio that there was progress on hammering out the letter. It was clear, however, that the talks were arduous, with both sides digging in over every last detail.

Another unresolved issue is the composition of the Palestinian delegation, which will negotiate under the umbrella of a Jordanian delegation but must be acceptable to Israel.

While the Palestinians reportedly have drawn up a list of potential negotiators, they postponed presenting it to Baker, pending approval from the Palestine Liberation Organization. On Thursday, Yasir Arafat convened a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee in Tunis, to reach a final decision on participation in the peace talks.

Israeli officials said Thursday night that neither they nor the U.S. team have yet received the Palestinian list.

Baker declined to take questions from reporters who spent the day waiting outside the Prime Minister’s Office. Israeli spokesman Ehud Goll would say only that the hope was to wrap up the outstanding issues by Friday.

But for an announcement to be made, that would have to be done before the Sabbath, which begins at about 4 p.m. local time.

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