Troops begin return at rate of 5,000 a day On way to Mideast, Baker says he'd talk with Palestinians WAR IN THE GULF

March 08, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Correspondent

SHANNON,IRELAND — SHANNON, Ireland -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III, embarking on a trip aimed in part at restarting the Arab-Israeli peace process, said yesterday he would be prepared to meet with Palestinians while in Israel next week.

He also indicated he would be exploring with Arab allies whether new leadership might emerge in the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"If Palestinians want to meet, I would of course be pleased to meet with them," Mr. Baker told reporters en route to a stopover at Shannon.

A senior official said room could be made on Mr. Baker's schedule if the Palestinians wanted to meet, but added:

"We have not requested meetings with Palestinians because they are in a state of turmoil in the aftermath of the support for Saddam Hussein and in the aftermath of the conflict, and we don't want to in any way exacerbate that, and we don't want to be seen to be somehow anointing certain Palestinians."

The PLO, with which the United States broke off dialogue last year, openly supported Iraq in the gulf war, and many Palestinians viewed Iraqi President Hussein as their champion. Arab members of the anti-Iraq coalition have spoken bitterly about PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, raising the possibility they might encourage different Palestinian leadership to develop, or perhaps the ouster of Mr. Arafat.

Israel has refused to deal with the PLO.

Mr. Baker said that "one of the things that I will be interested to find out during the course of this trip is how [Arab allies] see matters with respect to PLO leadership sorting out in the aftermath of this crisis."

Mr. Baker said efforts to start an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue represented one side of a "two-track" approach to Arab-Israeli peace, the other being state-to-state relations.

"I don't think either of these two tracks are mutually exclusive of each other . . . particularly in light of what has taken place."

His efforts to move toward a solution of the Palestinian conflict are expected to be the most closely watched part of Mr. Baker's four-nation Middle East trip, particularly in light of President Bush's renewed commitment Wednesday to the process of exchanging land for peace and his call for "legitimate Palestinian political rights."

The Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir has refused to consider relinquishing occupied territories claimed by Palestinians, and maintains that the Persian Gulf war showed the extra protective buffer is necessary.

The Bush administration argues that the occupied territories failed to prevent Iraqi Scud attacks on Israel.

Mr. Baker said that as part of the state-to-state "track," the United States would encourage "confidence-building" measures between Arab governments and Israel. He didn't elaborate, but other officials have spoken of information-sharing on such things as the timing and location of military exercises.

In saying this, Mr. Baker picked up on remarks by Mr. Shamir in an interview earlier this week in which the prime minister said Israel would be willing to enter into "confidence-building" deals without Arab governments' first recognizing and making a formal peace with Israel.

But Mr. Baker said the prospect of talks between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights was "way out in front of where we are."

Aides sought to keep expectations of what Mr. Baker might achieve on his mission low. He himself said the issues involved were some of the most difficult and intractable problems that exist.

Yet he also said there was at least the potential for making "some practical, pragmatic progress."

While voicing optimism over curbing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological and nuclear -- in the Mideast, Mr. Baker said it would be "more difficult" to curb conventional weapons.

Analysts say the regional appetite for conventional arms -- particularly sophisticated ones -- has if anything increased as a result of the gulf war.

"The United States . . . has not said it is going to try to limit" conventional arms, Mr. Baker said.

The administration is in a tough spot politically on the subject. It plans a new arms package for Egypt and intends also to supply extra equipment to Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. The United States also maintains a high level of military aid to Israel.

Mr. Baker was to arrive in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, today for meetings with the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, and later with King Fahd.

Tomorrow he will go to Taif to meet with the emir of Kuwait, who still has not returned to his country, and will then fly to Kuwait City to meet with the Kuwaiti crown prince.

While in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Baker is also scheduled to hold talks on bolstering Persian Gulf security.

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