ALGIERS, Algeria -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday that the United States would not exclude Libya, one of the most radically anti-Israel states, from the Middle East peace conference the United States and the Soviet Union are trying to convene.
Libya, together with Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, makes up the Arab Maghreb Union, which Mr. Baker has tried to persuade -- so far unsuccessfully -- to throw its weight behind the U.S. peace conference proposal already accepted in principle by Syria and Israel.
Mr. Baker wants the union to send an observer to the conference and its member states to join Israel in follow-up multilateral talks.
These talks -- on arms control, the environment and other issues -- "should not be closed to any countries in the region" that are interested in pursuing regional issues, Mr. Baker said, when asked if Libya could attend.
He said at a news conference here that it would be "preferable, of course," if the parties "acknowledged the rights of each other to exist in peace."
Libya has been actively trying to sway Arab public opinion
against the Baker peace process, calling it "a plot" and an "American attempt to induce the Arabs into accepting the Zionist decision."
This makes it highly unlikely that Libya could see any gain in attending, and forfeiting a claim to lead rejectionist radical Arabs.
But Mr. Baker's all-inclusive posture may be necessary to get the more moderate Maghreb countries to join and, in turn, persuade the Palestine Liberation Organization to bow to Israeli terms for Palestinian participation.
Israel would bolt if the PLO itself entered the talks, but the organization will be crucial in deciding whether other Palestinians attend.
Meanwhile, one of the PLO's leading moderate adherents in the territories, Faisal Husseini, has come under a death threat from the shadowy terrorist group Islamic Jihad, according to a communique reported by Agence France-Presse.
Mr. Baker ended a three-day visit to North Africa unable to get Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to commit themselves to joining the peace process, although each showed positive interest and Algeria has asked for a meeting of the Maghreb Union to discuss it.
This, plus continuing Palestinian hesitation, has sapped some of the momentum caused by Syrian acceptance and Israel's conditional yes.
"With these difficult decisions having been taken by governments in the region, some of them unprecedented in their nature, I hope very much that others will take equally courageous and difficult decisions," Mr. Baker said.
After 23 days on the road, Mr. Baker said he was "encouraged about the prospects . . . for the creation of an active and viable peace process."
But a senior official aboard his plane indicated later that Mr. Baker might have to return to the Middle East in September. The U.S. and Soviet Union hope to convene the conference in October.
"We don't know for sure that there's going to be a conference," the official noted.
A location for the conference also is still up in the air, with thIsraelis opposed to Cairo, Egypt, and the Soviets opposed to Washington. And Mr. Baker, speaking to the news media earlier, indicated that what would happen after it starts is still uncertain.
The United States and Soviet Union expect to be the "driving force" behind both the conference and the negotiations.