Baker finds Palestinians firm on PLO 10 leaders resist U.S. pressure for independent talks WAR IN THE GULF

March 13, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leaders rejected Secretary of State James A. Baker III's effort yesterday to get them to negotiate on their own, insisting that the Yasser Arafat-led Palestine Liberation Organization is their people's sole representative.

U.S. officials didn't take their answer as final, saying the Palestinians were shocked to learn of the hostility toward Mr. Arafat among the leaders of Egypt, Syria and the Persian Gulf states and wanted more meetings with Americans.

But their stand underscored the obstacles Mr. Baker faces in efforts to get Arab states to move toward peace with Israel and Israel to talk with the Palestinians.

The meeting at the U.S. consul-general's home in West Jerusalem came after Mr. Baker outlined to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir a range of steps the Israeli leader could take with the Palestinians that would make Arab leaders inclined to reconcile with Israel.

Although the Baker-Shamir talks were described in positive terms by both sides, the tight-lipped prime minister made no commitments toward Palestinians. Nor did Mr. Baker seek any at this early stage, as he hadn't from Arab leaders.

Mr. Baker discussed "different kinds of steps" that would move the peace process forward, an official said later. While he refused to be specific, they appear to include small early steps to expand freedom in the occupied West Bank and halt deportations, and to range ultimately up to trading land for peace.

The two men later met with their wives for dinner.

Faisal Husseini, a moderate PLO supporter and chief spokesman for the group that met with Mr. Baker, told reporters later that the Americans were informed, "We are here because Yasser Arafat asked us to be here." The fact that Mr. Arafat did so was significant, since the PLO previously barred prominent supporters in the territories from meeting on their own with top U.S. officials.

The 10 leaders, including Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij and Haider Abdel Shafi of the Red Crescent (the Muslim Red Cross) in the Gaza Strip, presented 11 familiar demands, saying their objective remained to establish a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Mr. Husseini said Mr. Baker urged them to "move on our own without the PLO." But their statement cited the PLO as "our sole legitimate leadership and interlocutors" and said Palestinians would not tolerate "any attempt at interference."

Israel steadfastly has refused to negotiate with the PLO but says it is willing to deal with other Palestinians. The United States suspended its dialogue with the PLO last year after the group refused to denounce and punish a PLO faction that attempted a terrorist raid on an Israeli beach.

Since Mr. Arafat sided with Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf war, however, the U.S. attitude has stiffened further, and Mr. Baker told the group he did not have a clear set of conditions for resuming the talks.

A senior administration official who attended the meeting described the group's unbending stand on the PLO's sole role in negotiations as a "ritualistic presentation."

When Mr. Baker told the 10 that none of the top officials of eight Arab countries he had met with recently would any longer "sit with Arafat" because of his pro-Iraq stand, their reaction was "as though they had been hit with a two-by-four," the official said.

Once the group had made its presentation, "they began to recognize that it is not enough to focus on symbolism. . . . You have to think about practical steps," the official said.

"They see value in having discussions with us," he said.

Meanwhile yesterday, Mr. Baker visited the graves of four Israeli women stabbed to death by an Arab who said he wanted to "send a message to Baker." The secretary was described as "deeply disturbed" by the deaths, particularly since they may have been triggered by his visit. He wrote letters that were hand-delivered to each of the families.

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