CAIRO — ...TC CAIRO -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III increased his verbal pressure on Israel and Syria yesterday, saying that if they were serious about peace they would find a way to solve the procedural disputes blocking a Middle East conference.
"It would seem to me that these issues being of the nature that they are, relating strictly to a question of modality, that the parties would make every effort to try and resolve them satisfactorily so that there can be some progress toward peace," Mr. Baker said.
"But I said right here . . . I think the last two times I was here, nobody can impose peace upon the parties. They have got to want it. So they have got to find a way to come together on issues such as this."
Israel opposes a U.N. role in the conference and wants it to be a one-time affair, giving way to bilateral talks and not reconvening.
Syria wants a strong U.N. role and a continuing conference.
But while Mr. Baker depicted the dispute as merely procedural, the two countries see the format of the conference as crucial to their bargaining leverage.
Israel, which views the United Nations as biased against it, wants direct talks with Arab countries without any outside pressure to yield territory to Syria and the Palestinians.
It is precisely to bring such pressure to bear that Syria wants a continuing conference and a strong U.N. presence.
Sunday, a U.S. official told reporters accompanying Mr. Baker that the effort to set up a conference may be hopelessly stalled, citing no sign of compromise from Israel or Syria. This followed Mr. Baker's failure in more than five hours of talks to make any progress on the two issues with Syrian President Hafez el Assad.
But in a day in which he met with President Hosni Mubarak and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, Mr. Baker was somewhat more upbeat yesterday.
"I'm optimistic enough to think that there ought to be some way that we can resolve those two questions, perhaps with the good offices of Egypt," Mr. Baker said at a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid.
Both Mr. Meguid and Mr. Bessmertnykh offered encouragement.
"There are still some problems, but we cannot consider them insurmountable," the Egyptian said.
Mr. Bessmertnykh, in an earlier press conference with Mr. Baker, said that "our talks on the Middle East here have reached a rather large plateau. And as a result, I think that the possibilities for a conference that we have in mind are growing, and the number of problems is fewer than before."
Mr. Baker did not exclude convening a peace conference without Syria.
"We would, obviously, much prefer to see a conference with Syria," he said, calling it "a very, very important country on this issue and to this process." A conference with "all the countries affected" would be "much more effective in moving toward peace in the Middle East," he said.