WASHINGTON -- The White House said yesterday that Secretary of State James A. Baker III's Middle East peace diplomacy had produced "slim" results.
"Obviously, that's somewhat disappointing," spokesman Marlin Fitzwater added.
The downbeat assessment underscored the lack of headway Mr. Baker had made last week in trying to arrange a peace conference that would lead to direct talks between Israel and Arab states and between Israel and Palestinians.
It contrasted with a comment Friday by President Bush, who said, "I think the bottom line is there is some reason for optimism."
But Mr. Fitzwater noted there was "some progress made," although not a great deal, and pledged that "we want to continue to
work with the parties." And some hints of flexibility were evident yesterday in comments here by Israel's ambassador and a Palestinian.
The secretary cut short his Israel visit and flew back to the United States after learning of the death of his 96-year-old mother.
Before he left Jerusalem, and after he had met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, his spokeswoman read a statement putting the onus on Israel to take further steps before the process could get off the ground.
The outlook worsened over the weekend, when the Israeli Cabinet rolled back on modest concessions made Friday by Foreign Minister David Levy.
Mr. Levy offered to meet partway Arab demands for a peace conference that would continue even after bilateral talks got under way and be available to resolve disputes. He said the conference might be reconvened every six months to hear reports on progress, ifsrael and the other parties agreed, but would not be allowed to mediate.
But Mr. Shamir and others on Sunday opposed even this shift, and appeared to stick to their original proposal for a one-time-only, largely ceremonial event that would lead immediately to direct talks.
Mr. Fitzwater declined to comment on the Israeli Cabinet's deliberations or on Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole's suggestion of a threatened cut in aid to get the process moving. But he said, "I would say that we had hoped that the war effort and the goodwill and opportunity that derive from it would lead to progress in the peace process. The results so far have been slim. Obviously, that's somewhat disappointing."
Besides the duration of the conference, the major sticking point are a United Nations role and Israel's refusal to allow Palestinians from East Jerusalem to participate.
Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval clung yesterday to his country's refusal to allow U.N. participation -- a key Syrian demand -- saying the world body had given ample reason to believe it was biased against Israel.
But he acknowledged a U.N. role under resolutions 242 and 338, which all sides have agreed would be the basis for negotiations, and said, "We will see if that can be discussed." An Israeli official said later that some means might be arrived at to report to the United Nations on the conference.
Separately, Hisham Awartani, a Palestinian from the Economic Development Group on the West Bank, seemed to accept that Palestinians did not have to be represented by someone with a Jerusalem address. Who would negotiate for them was the "thorniest" question for Israelis and the easiest for them, he said, at a conference organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
William Quandt, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, said that if Mr. Shamir's strategy is to "prevent this or any other round of negotiations from getting started," the United States would be playing into his hands by throwing in the towel.
He suggested that the United States try to persuade the Israeli public with an "attractive vision" of a non-coercive peace conference and what it might produce, "and let the Israelis themselves mull it over."
In addition, he said the United States needs to exert greater pressure on Saudi Arabia to participate as a sweetener for Israel. But if the Bush administration is not prepared to invest some political capital in the peace effort, he said, he does "not have high hopes."
Judith Kipper, also at Brookings, argued that a series of small confidence-building steps are necessary before Arabs and Israelis are ready to talk peace, and that now, with Iraq and Kuwait both still far from calm, is no time to try to push the process forward.
"If a house two or three doors away is burning to the ground, it's not the time to call in the decorators," she said.