CAIRO, Egypt -- Prospects for a Middle East peace conference may be hopelessly stalled on just two issues, prompting the United States to ponder a different approach, an administration official said yesterday.
After 5 1/2 hours of talks in Damascus yesterday, Secretary of State James A. Baker III failed to trim Syrian President Hafez el Assad's insistence on an "important" or "significant" U.N. role at the talks or on a continuing conference that would maintain pressure for a settlement in bilateral negotiations.
Israel wants no U.N. role and only a single, largely ceremonial opening of a conference.
Voicing no hope that Israel would yield either, the administration official said the only reason for Mr. Baker's staying on the road was that it would be "dishonorable" to break appointments in Cairo and Israel this week.
But there was an almost buoyant tone to the downbeat message, as if the Baker team relished the chance to knock heads publicly and start to assign blame for the failure in the hopes of forcing a change.
"At the end of this trip, we will know exactly what separates the parties. Exactly. And then we will determine what the next steps are," the official said.
The clear intent was to hold up Israel and Syria as stubbornly blocking peace over relatively minor issues.
"I think it's important to keep in mind that there are many more points of agreement than there of disagreement. The points of disagreement are relatively few," Mr. Baker said before meeting here last night with Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, his partner in trying to arrange a conference.
Later, he added, "I don't think we've reached an impasse that cannot be bridged." But an official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he didn't know if the gaps could be bridged.
This set the stage for Israel, if it chooses, to appear statesmanlike with a sudden compromise. Or it could expose both countries as not being serious enough about the process to try to bridge the gap.
Should this occur, an administration official suggested Mr. Baker could try two routes.
One is holding a conference without Syria. The official said such a course is "very speculative" and "hypothetical" at this point.
Or he could sidestep the crucial political issues of territorial disputes and Palestinian rights altogether and focus instead on talks about the regional problems of arms proliferation, water and the environment.
A third option, not mentioned yesterday but hinted at by other officials previously, would have the co-sponsors -- the United States and the Soviet Union -- simply issue invitations to a regional peace conference and see who dares to refuse.
Prospects for a conference as a catalyst for wider talks appeared to advance Saturday when the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council, the gulf states' mutual defense body, agreed to send an observer and also deal directly with Israel later in talks on regional issues.
But that evidently made little impact on Mr. Assad, who seeks forhimself the leading role in any peace process. Syria's official English-language Syria Times made scant mention of the gulf council's offer yesterday, and the government adopted a newly negative tone on Mr. Baker's efforts, which it had previously praised.
An unsigned editorial in the official Tishreen, summarizing Mr. Baker's efforts to date, asked: "Is it really an appropriate opportunity to be optimistic? What if all these hopes turn to nothing?"
Wasting the current opportunity for a "comprehensive peace" -- Syria's term for requiring Israel to yield the Golan Heights to Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinians -- won't jeopardize "the situation in the Middle East," Tishreen said. ". . . but it jeopardizes American credibility and affects international security, peace and detente."
The gulf council's move was also dismissed yesterday by a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: "In a status of observers, there is no tangible contribution to the peace process because they maintain a state of war with us," said Yossi Ben-Aharon, director of Mr. Shamir's office.
In Washington, President Bush said developments in the Mideast were "very encouraging."
"There's some prospect, but it's too early to say," he said. Referring to the gulf council's agreement, Mr. Bush said, "The recent developments, the statement out of the Saudis, is very encouraging, very encouraging."