WASHINGTON -- President Bush, facing what could be his last chance to initiate the Middle Eastern peace process that he once envisioned as the crowning achievement of the Persian Gulf war, has sent a new U.S. compromise proposal to Arab and Israeli leaders.
Seeking to break a persistent procedural deadlock, Mr. Bush outlined the plan in detailed diplomatic messages dispatched last week to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a senior administration official said.
The official disclosed the communications with Mr. Shamir, King Hussein and Mr. Mubarak after Secretary of State James A. Baker III handed a letter containing the proposal to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh in Lisbon on Saturday.
If the responses are promising, the official said, Mr. Baker may make his fifth trip to the region since the end of the gulf war to discuss details in person with Arab and Israeli leaders.
But Mr. Baker is known to have become weary of the so-far fruitless shuttle between Middle Eastern capitals. If this initiative does not break the impasse, the secretary of state may decide to shelve the matter for a time.
Although Mr. Baker and his aides refused to discuss the substance of the U.S. compromise, there is little doubt that the president hopes tobridge the gap between Syria and Israel over arrangements for a peace conference to be co-sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union. If Jerusalem and Damascus agree to attend, Egypt, Jordan, a Palestinian delegation and the Gulf Cooperation Council will surely follow suit.
In four trips to the region, Mr. Baker has obtained general agreement on most procedural questions. He says, for instance, that all parties agree that the purpose of the conference would be limited to launching face-to-face negotiations between Israel and neighboring Arab governments on one track and between Israel and the Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip on another track.
But the process has been hung up on the role, if any, to be played by the United Nations and on the duration of the proposed conference.
Syrian President Hafez el Assad is demanding significant participation by the United Nations, which has repeatedly called for Israel to withdraw from territory occupied by its forces in the 1967 Arab-Israel war. Damascus also wants the conference to reconvene from time to time to mediate disputes between Israel and the Arab parties.
Mr. Shamir, for his part, wants to exclude the United Nations, which Israel considers to be biased against the Jewish state, and to limit the conference to a one-time-only ceremonial beginning.
Those differences, although symbolically important, are thought to be little more than excuses to prevent -- or at least delay -- the start of a conference that neither Israel nor Syria is yet ready to attend.
U.S. officials say that they expect the procedural disputes to fade away as soon as Mr. Shamir and Mr. Assad conclude that a peace conference would be in their interest.
The U.S. plan is believed to call for U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar or his representative to attend the conference as an observer and for a provision allowing the conference to reconvene with the approval of all participants. Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy had proposed a similar compromise, but Mr. Shamir, in a stinging rebuff to a leading official of his own government, repudiated the Levy proposal.