JERUSALEM -- Foreign Minister David Levy said last night that he was encouraged by what he learned from Secretary of State James A. Baker III about the willingness of key Arab states to move toward reconciliation with Israel.
The crucial second phase of Mr. Baker's postwar Mideast mission opened amid heightened tension in Israel after the stabbing deaths of four Israeli women at the hands of an Arab man and a cross-border clash early yesterday that killed six Arabs.
Mr. Baker plans to meet this afternoon with a group of Palestinian representatives. U.S. officials are expected to press them to come up with negotiating positions and delegates for talks with Israel.
The Arab group is widely believed to include West Bank leaders Faisal Huseini, who has close ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij. But U.S. officials, pushing PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat further from the picture, indicated that their refusal to reopen a dialogue with him is firmer than ever because of his support for Iraq.
Following a dinner meeting with Mr. Baker last night, Mr. Levy told a press conference that Arab states were "beginning to show signs of change."
He said his talks with Mr. Baker, who arrived from meetings with Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and five Persian Gulf states, "shows an encouraging sign which we didn't see until now."
Mr. Baker arrived ready to tell the Israelis of steps toward peace that the Arabs are prepared to take if there are encouraging signs from Israel.
The United States hopes to get the Arabs to talk directly to Israel -- something that only Egypt has done -- and to get Israel to start a political dialogue with the Palestinians.
Mr. Baker applauded the Israeli Cabinet's proposal to restart the aborted May 1989 peace plan that calls for elections leading to autonomy, although not a state, for Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories.
In remarks clearly aimed at spurring political support in Israel for his efforts, Mr. Baker said he had seen signs of "new thinking" and a willingness to consider "new approaches" among the Arabs.
Whether these turn into commitments "depends in large part on whether there is a similar attitude on the other side of the equation," meaning from Israel. He promised not to pressure, but to "reason, cajole, plead" and "offer our good offices" as a catalyst. He vowed to stick with the effort.
He urged "all parties" to avoid stating final, nonnegotiable positions.
"We won't make progress . . . if one side or the other says they won't move until the other side moves," he said.
Israel has refused even to consider ceding occupied territory, arguing that it is a vital buffer against Arab states still at war with it. The Bush administration argues that the gulf war showed that territory can't protect Israel from missile attacks.
But Israelis drew a different lesson: Noting fervent Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein, they argue that the threat to Israel would be all the greater with a hostile Palestinian state next door.
Renewed violence in Israel and a strike by Arabs in Jerusalem's old city underscored the difficulty of the Baker mission.
Yesterday, Israeli troops shot dead six Arab gunmen who the government said were attempting a cross-border raid from Jordan at the site of an Israeli kibbutz.
The stabbing deaths of four women Sunday prompted Mr. Baker to cancel a planned tour of Jerusalem's old city. A spokesman said that it was inappropriate for him to be sightseeing on the heels of the tragedy. One of the dead women had just immigrated from the Soviet Union two months ago.
In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said that as the world looks to "a new day for this region" some obviously prefer the "violent ways of the past," rejecting hope and reconciliation.
Although the PLO reportedly endorsed today's planned meeting between Mr. Baker and Palestinians, Mr. Baker insisted it was not a back-door resumption of dialogue with the PLO.
A senior State Department official traveling with him said that none of the Arab leaders Mr. Baker met with recently "had any use for Arafat."