JERUSALEM -- By the time Palestinian leaders emerged yesterday from a meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, they found many of their hard-won political gains from the Palestinian uprising long gone.
Gone were the last hopes that the United States would soon resume official contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization, a dialogue the Palestinians said Mr. Baker firmly rejected.
Gone too was any assurance that the Palestinian problem would be considered the No. 1 regional issue. Instead, Mr. Baker proposed a regional conference at which the final status of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip would be only one of many subjects to be negotiated by Israel and Arab states.
The six Palestinians who met two hours with Mr. Baker neither rejected nor publicly criticized his outline for a regional meeting, even though the plan contains features the Palestinians have previously denounced.
"We would like to discuss it," said Faisal Husseini, head of the Palestinian delegation. "We would like also the PLO to discuss it."
Mr. Husseini, a resident of East Jerusalem who is acknowledged as the PLO's chief representative, took pains to preserve the appearance that the PLO's influence remained unaffected by its disastrous endorsement of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"We did not accept the ideas that Baker came with," he said. "It is the PLO who will decide about that."
But if U.S. officials were unimpressed by the Palestinians' insistence on adhering to old positions, now only lost causes, they were encouraged by their attentiveness to Mr. Baker.
"We heard a lot of questions about the nature of the process that is being discussed and about the nature of a meeting," a senior State Department official said. "If someone isn't interested, they don't ask a lot of questions."
As outlined in recent days by U.S. and Israeli officials, a regional conference remains a proposal with virtually all the details necessary to make it a reality still to be decided.
Officials say such a meeting would involve Israel, as many as a half-dozen Arab countries and Palestinians, perhaps as members of a delegation under the flag of Jordan. The United States and Soviet Union would act as the meeting's co-sponsors.
The Palestinian issue would be one of several items on the agenda, each of them to be addressed separately.
Israel would agree to negotiate the future of the occupied territories while conducting talks on other issues at the same time, an arrangement Palestinians rejected in the past. Israel's ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, said yesterday that the United States had agreed to Israel's demand that residents of East Jerusalem be barred from any talks, a claim U.S. officials left unconfirmed.
In the past, Palestinians have demanded that negotiations over the future of the occupied territories come first, together with a virtual agreement in advance on the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state.
They have lost for now any hope of getting their way because of the PLO's having maintained its support for Iraq throughout the Persian Gulf war. The PLO as a result lost diplomatic and financial support from Saudi Arabia and other gulf states.