Israel agrees to peace talks with Arabs U.S. to help arrange regional conference

Soviets to take part

April 10, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- The United States and Israel agreed yesterday to try to arrange a conference that would include, in addition to themselves, the Arab states, Palestinians and the Soviet Union to break the "taboos" that have blocked Middle East peace.

The plan lacks agreement on the meeting's format, representatives, timing and location, according to a senior State Department official, who stressed that the conference was far from certain.

But "on the idea of having a meeting, there is certainly agreement," the official said, opening what he called a "different phase" in the post-Persian Gulf war peace process.

"The question here is breaking these taboos" blocking direct talks between Arabs and Israel, "and breaking the taboos in a way that also ensures that you can have a serious negotiation that results."

Secretary of State James A. Baker III will pursue the plan further in a second meeting today with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He then will leave for talks with Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The plan is a more restricted form of the "international conference" that Arab leaders have long sought as a cover for dealing with Israel. But Israel, fearing that unsympathetic nations will gang up on it, has opposed an enlarged conference format.

In previous discussions on a regional peace conference, Israeli officials had ruled out a Soviet presence unless Moscow restored full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy did not repeat that condition yesterday, but the Soviets have indicated they will take this step.

Accepting the regional conference idea allowed Israel to make a concrete peace gesture without yielding on the fundamental issue of tradingland for peace, a principle President Bush has said must be the basis for lasting peace.

Israel's willingness to participate in a "regional" meeting was leaked to the Israeli press Monday as Mr. Baker arrived here to advance a Mideast peace initiative he acknowledged was in danger of drifting.

Since Mr. Baker launched the effort a month ago, Israel had begun to look like the obstructionist party with its unbending policies toward Palestinians and Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, both viewed by the United States as "obstacles" to peace.

In a related move, which drew praise from Mr. Baker and angry reaction from conservative politicians here, Israel told the United States that it would free 1,200 Palestinian prisoners.

Emerging from a meeting with Mr. Baker yesterday morning, Mr. Levy told reporters, "The United States believes that it is possible to convene a meeting of Arab states with Israel to talk about peace, under the auspices of the United States."

If the Soviets agree to the same agenda and "general political approach," Israel won't oppose Soviet participation, he said.

"The United States is determining along with us an agreed set of positions. I hope that the United States will succeed in getting the agreement of the other parties," Mr. Levy said.

"The meeting will begin with an opening session and will allow afterwards for direct contact between Israel and Arab states. Parallel, we agree to work on the issue known as the Palestinian issue, in accordance with the Israeli government peace initiative of 1989," he said.

The 1989 plan called for elections in the occupied territory, followed by direct Israeli-Palestinian talks. The plan, pursued earlier for months by Mr. Baker, was aborted.

Mr. Baker cautioned against any "rush to judgment" that something "has been completely agreed to" and said "there are still . . . many, many details that have to be addressed and looked at and ironed out."

A key question was who would represent the Palestinians. Mr. Levy did not even include them among participants, although the senior State Department official said they "have to be a part of such a meeting."

The United States hopes, perhaps with Jordanian sponsorship, to get Palestinian leaders to participate without the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Other participants would include Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the five other Persian Gulf oil states.

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