WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III travels to the Middle East late this week for another stab at arranging an Arab-Israeli peace conference amid new signs of erosion in the more flexible attitudes arising from the Persian Gulf war.
"I have discussed this at quite some length with the president over the course of recent days, most recently yesterday by telephone," Mr. Baker told reporters yesterday as he greeted former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze at the State Department.
"We both believe that as long as there is any hope to deal with this most intractable of all problems and conflicts, we should continue to try."
An optimistic scenario would have Mr. Baker clear away the tough obstacles to a Mideast peace conference just as the Soviet Union, slated to be a co-sponsor, restores full diplomatic relations with Israel.
The announcement of Mr. Baker's trip came just after the Arab League reinforced its secondary boycott of Israel by adding 110 new firms to its blacklist of companies that do business with Israel. These include 104 in which the league's Boycott of Israel Office said British publisher Robert Maxwell had interests. Mr. Maxwell recently bought the New York Daily News.
At the same time, the league took the Coca-Cola Co. and three other U.S. firms off the blacklist.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated the "firm and unyielding" U.S. opposition to the boycott.
But he declined, in response to reporters' questions, to equate the expanded blacklist with Israel's continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Success in setting up a peace conference depends in part on bridging a deep gap between Israel and Syria over what role the United Nations would play. Israel wants to keep the U.N. out, citing what it calls a longtime anti-Israel bias.
In recent days, Israel has quietly advanced the idea of a conference without Syria that would include Jordan, a delegation of Palestinians, Egypt, the United States and the Soviet Union.
This could avert the need for an Israeli compromise on the U.N. question, but rests on the questionable presumption that Jordan would be willing to deal directly with Israel without Syria, which has a record of fiercely opposing any effort to cut it out of regional diplomacy.
Other obstacles include debate over whether Palestinians from East Jerusalem could take part and whether the conference would be a one-time or continuing affair.
Mr. Baker has put the onus on Israel for stalling the process and appears to be trying to isolate the Israeli right wing, which opposes any halt in settling the occupied territories.
Mr. Baker's trip is tentatively scheduled to include stops in Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, with a meeting in the region with Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, who will visit Israel Friday.