Key obstacles remain as Baker ends peace mission

May 17, 1991|By Mark Matthews and Robert Ruby | Mark Matthews and Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondents

JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III's fourth Mideast peace mission ended yesterday with two key procedural issues still blocking an Arab-Israeli peace conference and Israel rejecting his attempt at compromise.

"You're not going to have a conference until these issues are resolved," Mr. Baker told reporters before leaving Israel.

In a day and a half of meetings with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his foreign and defense ministers, Mr. Baker drew some flexibility from Israel, but not enough, an administration official said.

But the trip did produce a formula that U.S. officials believe would allow Palestinians to participate in a peace conference and then enter direct talks with Israel, probably as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, he said.

Briefing reporters before Mr. Baker's return to Washington, the official said, "I'm certainly not claiming that we can make this thing work, but I'm certainly equally not suggesting that the effort is dead at this point."

"We are sure that the secretary will continue his great efforts," Mr. Shamir said after the last session with Mr. Baker, "and I wish him and ourselves full success and positive results in getting this peace process to a successful end."

Later, at Ben-Gurion Airport, Mr. Baker said there was definite progress as well as issues still to be resolved, including what, if any, role could be taken by the United Nations.

"There is a very, very broad range of issues with respect to which there is agreement," he said. "There are, yes, some issues out there still to be resolved."

The length of the talks in Jerusalem -- more than nine hours in a day and a half -- reflected their difficulty. Foreign Minister David Levy acknowledged that the atmosphere "was sometimes not all that good."

"But now I am pleased that progress is being made toward shared understanding among all of us," he said. "We were in need of a great deal of patience and perseverance."

Mr. Baker, who is expected to brief President Bush today, refused to disclose his next steps, but no change in direction appeared to be in store.

The aim is a conference leading to direct talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors and between Israel and Palestinians.

But Mr. Baker has dismissed the obstacles as consisting merely of "modalities" and said that if the countries involved were serious, they would find a way to remove them.

Israel and Syria remain at odds on what role the United Nations would play in a conference and whether the conference could reconvene. Mr. Baker has said publicly that "modalities" should not stand in the way if countries seriously want peace.

As a result of the talks here, "we have what I consider are some things that we did not have before, some things that are available to us in discussions with the other side," the administration official said.

With public opinion in Israel favoring the idea of trading land for peace with Arabs, Mr. Shamir has drawn a pledge from Labor Party leader Shimon Peres not to join in trying to bring down the government if the peace process causes right-wingers to bolt.

U.S. officials refused to divulge Israel's compromises on the U.N. role and the continuity of the conference.

But the Israeli news media reported that Israel would accept a non-participating observer representing the U.N. secretary-general, not the world body itself, and would agree to the conference reconvening after nine months to hear progress reports.

Syria still demands U.N. auspices and sponsorship and wants a continuing conference, an administration official said.

Its aim is to maintain world pressure on Israel to yield territory, including the Golan Heights, which formerly belonged to Syria.

But Mr. Baker said all parties had agreed that the conference itself could not impose solutions or veto results.

Despite the wide gulf on these two issues, an administration official said Mr. Baker did not want to "write off the effort to include Syria."

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