Though facing skepticism from Israel, U.S. approaches talks with optimism WAR IN THE GULF

March 08, 1991|By Frank Starr | Frank Starr,Chief of The Sun's Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Administration officials believe the outcome of the Persian Gulf war has created a new "environment" for solution of Arab-Israeli problems despite expressions of skepticism yesterday from the Israeli government.

As Secretary of State James A. Baker III left for discussions set for Monday in Israel, armed with President Bush's fresh commitment to pursue a land-for-peace formula, his counterpart, David Levy, was quoted in Jerusalem as repeating his government's strong opposition to the idea.

"Anything perceived as pressure on Israel or forcing Israel to make concessions will drive peace away," he said.

While administration officials -- and President Bush in his speech to the nation Wednesday night -- were quick to say there was no "American plan" for reducing tensions, they nonetheless expressed optimism that the momentum of the gulf war could drive progress toward solving Israel's dispute with its Arab neighbors as well as the issue of a Palestinian homeland.

Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, in explaining the new "environment," pointed to three circumstances.

* A coalition including moderate Arab states joined the United States in the military defeat of Iraq, "thereby removing one threat to the peace process." Israel also had considered a strong Iraq a threat to its security.

* Israel chose not to respond militarily to Scud attacks, and to cooperate with the coalition by staying out of the war. "So you had a rare situation in which their [Israeli and Arab] interests were the same, and we think out of that has come some new momentum or new opportunities for understanding."

* "The war has also produced some recognition of the fact that geography alone cannot guarantee security," an apparent reference to Iraq's launching Scud missiles at Israel over Jordan.

Since it acquired the Golan Heights and the West Bank in the 1967 war, Israel has firmly refused to give them up on the ground that its physical security required holding them.

The first provision of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 war and cited by President Bush on Wednesday, calls for Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territory.

"We'll discuss these matters with them," Mr. Fitzwater said, "but our positions have not changed in terms of [Resolution] 242."

The administration has decided to consider separately, but on a parallel track, Israel's disputes with Arab states.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reportedly is planning to revive his 1989 peace plan that rejects a Palestinian state but calls for elections of leaders to negotiate with Israel, replacing the main representative of Palestinians, the Palestine Liberation Organization.

While Israeli officials were dismissing President Bush's Mideast comments as containing nothing new, Reuters quoted a Palestinian leader in Jerusalem, Faisal al-Husseini, as saying, "There are positive points in Mr. Bush's speech." He cited the president's reference to "legitimate Palestinian political rights" and his reference to the U.N. Resolution 242.

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