WASHINGTON -- President Bush, facing what could be his last chance to initiate the Middle East 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, 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 Shamir, Hussein and Mubarak after Secretary of State James Baker handed a letter containing the proposal to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh in Lisbon Saturday.
If the responses are promising, the official said, Baker may make his fifth trip to the region since the end of the gulf conflict to discuss details in person with Arab and Israeli leaders. Baker is scheduled to attend a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers this week in Copenhagen, Denmark, and could travel from there to the Middle East.
Bush had hoped to capitalize on the prestige that the United States gained by the defeat of Iraq to jump-start the long moribund peace process. But it now seems that the leaders of the region were less impressed than the administration with the "window of opportunity."
Although Baker and his aides refused to discuss the substance of the U.S. compromise, there is little doubt that the president hopes to bridge 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, Baker has obtained general agreement on most procedural questions. For instance, Baker says, all parties agree that the purpose of the conference would be limited to launching face-to-face negotiations between Israel and RTC neighboring Arab governments on one track and between Israel and the Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip on another track. In addition, he says, all parties agree to seek a comprehensive settlement of all Arab-Israeli disputes.
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 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.
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.
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 proposed a similar compromise earlier. However, Shamir, in a rebuff to an official of his own government, repudiated the Levy proposal.