WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III, racing against a self-imposed deadline three weeks away, embarks Saturday on his eighth trip to the Middle East in seven months in an effort to get Israel and the Arabs to the bargaining table by the end of the month, the State Department announced yesterday.
Mr. Baker's mission is expected to overlap slightly with a trip to the region by Soviet Foreign Minister Boris D. Pankin that also is intended to spur the peace process, although there are no announced plans for the two to meet. The Soviets are co-sponsoring the proposed peace conference and intend to restore full diplomatic relations with Israel.
"The purpose of this trip is to try to overcome the remaining issues and finalize the details that must be resolved before issuance of invitations and convening of a peace conference that could lead to direct negotiations between the parties," State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler said.
Neither Israel nor the Arab states have promised to attend the talks, nor have the Palestinians. Still to be worked out are the assurances the United States will give to the participants on its role in the negotiations and the makeup of a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation. No exact date or location has been picked, but it is widely expected that the conference will be held in Western Europe.
Each participant is pressing for a U.S. stance most favorable to itself. The Arabs want to ensure that the United States will press Israel to yield territory, the Israelis that they won't be isolated and that their ties with the United States won't suffer if they refuse to give up territory they have occupied since the 1967 war.
U.S. officials say the United States won't deviate from its current policy and won't give secret assurances. Within those constraints, trying to satisfy everyone is proving difficult. The pTC problem is seen as less an effort on any party's part to block the conference than a sign of mounting nervousness among all of the participants now that the conference is almost a sure thing.
The bargaining has been shadowed by a bitter U.S.-Israeli dispute over Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to settle Soviet immigrants. The Bush administration won a 120-day congressional delay on the issue, and Israel has used frequent opportunities to restate its refusal to give up territory and its determination to continue expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Addressing Parliament Monday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir rejected exchanging captured Arab land for peace and promised to prevent a peace conference from reconvening if direct negotiations with Arab states stalled.
He also insisted that Palestinian delegates meet Israel's specifications. Israel refuses to talk with anyone claiming to represent the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Two Palestinians who have negotiated repeatedly with Mr. Baker, Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashwari,were questioned by Israeli authorities yesterday after reports that they had traveled to a recent session of the PLO parliament-in-exile in Algiers, Algeria. Israeli law bars contact with the PLO.
The two were released after 75 minutes in what appeared to be an effort by the Israelis to deliver a public warning while not stalling the peace process. They are expected to meet in Washington with Mr. Baker before he travels to the Middle East.
Miss Tutwiler expressed apparent frustration yesterday over the slow pace of establishing a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the peace talks. A senior PLO official recently traveled to Amman, Jordan, but there have been few signs of active efforts by Jordanians and Palestinians in the occupied territories.