WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III ended a nine-day Middle East mission last night demanding additional answers from Israel before the peace process can move forward.
Mr. Baker cut short his visit to Israel after receiving word during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that his mother, Bonner Means Baker, 96, had died yesterday morning in Houston.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, in a statement read just before Mr. Baker left Jerusalem, said: "Questions remain here in Israel. We still need some answers from the Israeli government relating primarily to modalities before we can move this process forward."
Mr. Baker is trying to arrange a peace conference leading to direct talks between Arab states and Israel and between Israel and Palestinians. "Modalities" apparently referred to the structure and participants.
Israel has balked at a role for the United Nations in such a conference and insists that no Palestinians from East Jerusalem take part.
"The secretary intends to see the president when he returns from Houston to determine appropriate next steps in the search for Middle East peace," Ms. Tutwiler said.
President Bush, speaking to reporters at the White House yesterday, said, "I think it's fair to say that though problems remain, I think the bottom line is there's some reason for optimism.
"There are still some sticky problems. But we're not going to give up. We're going to continue to try to bring peace to that troubled corner of the world."
Ms. Tutwiler's statement contrasted with Mr. Baker's departing words in Syria on Wednesday, when he said that as far as "modalities" were concerned, "I think that we are working through these issues in a very constructive way."
In more than a week of talks, Mr. Baker repeatedly heard Israelis and Arabs demand changes in his proposals, but without any of the parties publicly rejecting his plan outright.
Based on a meeting with Foreign Minister David Levy before suddenly leaving Israel, Mr. Baker said that differences remained between Israel and the United States. "The minister has given me some answers to some of the questions that I left here when I departed before," said Mr. Baker, making his fourth stop in Israel in six weeks. "Some of those answers I think we can work with. Others we will have difficulty with, quite frankly."
Mr. Baker has reported similarly mixed results at other stops during his nine-day trip. Syria insisted that a peace conference include a prominent role for the United Nations, a condition rejected by Israel. Saudi officials said that their country would not be represented at a conference, a disappointment to officials here counting on gaining diplomatic recognition from Persian Gulf states.
The secretary of state said he was unsure if and when he would return to the region.
Avi Pazner, Mr. Shamir's spokesman, said that "nothing was concluded" but that Israel did not consider Mr. Baker's mission to have been completed.
Mr. Baker's most powerful weapon has been each side's fear that it will be blamed if his efforts collapse, a concern that has
kept all the
parties talking. Syria has said Israel was responsible for the lack of progress, while Israel has said its concessions have not been matched by Arab states.
So far the parties apparently have focused on the form and workings of a peace conference, with Israeli officials reporting agreement with the United States on several points.
Israeli officials said they and the United States agreed on having the Soviet Union and the United States co-sponsor the conference and on allowing a limited role for the 12-nation European Community. Mr. Levy is to discuss Europe's role when meets European Community leaders in Brussels, Belgium, May 14.
The announcement of Israel's acceptance of Soviet participation was expected. Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh met with Mr. Baker on Thursday and said the Soviet Union agreed to participate in a regional conference.
Israeli officials said they also reached agreement with the United States on limiting the powers of a conference. The United States reportedly agreed that the conference would not have authority to impose decisions in case of deadlocks in direct Israeli-Arab talks.
Israel, which has wanted the conference to be a one-time, largely ceremonial event, also accepted a U.S. compromise to allow the conference to reconvene after the initial session if Israel and the other parties agreed.