JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leaders expressed "cautious optimism" yesterday after talks with Secretary of State James A. Baker III about plans for a regional peace conference that is becoming a source of tension between the United States and Israel.
The Palestinians said the latest talks, the third session within the last five weeks, were the first to explore in detail the role and makeup of a Palestinian delegation to a peace conference, the format for which is being revised continually by the United States.
The latest meeting was also the occasion for Mr. Baker to make explicit his opposition to Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. According to the Palestinians, Mr. Baker showed them part of a U.S. television news program about the confiscation of Palestinian land, and he reportedly assured them that U.S. public opinion would turn against Israel's settlement policies.
"The question of settlements was raised very strongly," said Hanan Mikael-Ashrawi, a professor at Bir Zeit University and one of three Palestinians in the delegation. "We felt there was tremendous receptiveness and compassion."
Mr. Baker sounded less upbeat. "We are going to keep plugging away," he said before leaving Israel for the Jordanian city of Aqaba, on the Red Sea, for his first meeting with Jordan's King Hussein since the Persian Gulf war.
A U.S. official indicated to reporters there that Mr. Baker had made only limited progress in Israel.
"As we get closer, the decisions get tougher," said the official, who declined to be identified. "I think that's what you are seeing. These are tough calls and tough decisions."
According to Mr. Baker's latest proposals, a peace conference would involve some but not all Arab states. Participants would be limited to Palestinians and the Arab states neighboring Israel, the U.S. official said, leaving out Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations.
"It's not because Saudi Arabia is refusing anything," Mr. Baker said in Jordan. "I think there is a feeling on the part of the sometimes-called frontline states neighboring Israel that the issues in dispute are issues that affect Israel and those countries, and issues that affect Israel and Palestinians."
The Arab states bordering Israel are Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Israel and Egypt negotiated a peace treaty in 1979. Israeli officials were counting on getting diplomatic recognition from the gulf states through the regional conference and not having to settle the Palestinian issue first.
Later in the day, Mr. Baker described his meeting with King Hussein as "very productive and useful," a sign of improved relations with Jordan. King Hussein angered the Bush administration by failing to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and Congress responded by eliminating U.S. aid to Jordan.
King Hussein was joined at the meeting by Crown Prince Hassan, Prime Minister Mudar Badran and Foreign Minister Taher Masri. Mr. Masri and Mr. Baker met earlier this month in Geneva.
Mr. Baker traveled from Aqaba to Cairo yesterday and is scheduled to leave Cairo today for Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
In his talks in Jerusalem, Mr. Baker appeared to be on a see-saw, with Israeli officials and the Palestinian delegation on opposite HTC ends. Chances of an agreement with one party appeared to go up only when chances of agreement with the other went down, since each side has totally different demands.
Israeli officials and Palestinians dispute almost everything except public willingness to attend a peace conference of some kind. The powers, duration and sponsor of a conference remain to be settled, along with the list of which countries would be represented and who would represent the Palestinians.
This time, the atmosphere was improved between Mr. Baker and the Palestinians a day after relations cooled between the secretary of state and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Mr. Shamir met with Mr. Baker for more than three hours Friday -- only for the two sides to reach at least a temporary deadlock. Israeli and U.S. spokesmen said that Mr. Shamir wanted more time before responding to U.S. proposals for organizing a conference.
Depending on Mr. Shamir's reply, Mr. Baker could return to Israel later this week. Mr. Baker's published schedule has him traveling from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait and then to Syria but without a firm date for returning to Washington.
Members of the Palestinian delegation described their two hours with Mr. Baker as "more constructive" than previous meetings and hinted at the broad outline of the separate Palestinian and U.S. proposals.
"I came out of this meeting with cautious optimism," said Faisal Husseini, leader of the delegation. "I'm not saying we created a success -- maybe we created a better atmosphere."
The Palestinians are demanding a diplomatic process that gives them a chance of eventually negotiating the creation of an
independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territory now controlled by Israel.