CAIRO -- Seemingly confident but increasingly reticent, Secretary of State James A. Baker III arrived in the Middle East yesterday to try to soothe Arab and Israeli anxiety over conditions for a peace conference.
During Mr. Baker's 12-hour flight from Washington to Cairo, the State Department announced that he would confer Friday with Soviet Foreign Minister Boris D. Pankin.
There is nothing unusual about that: Mr. Baker has met 12 times this year with Mr. Pankin or his predecessor, Alexander A. Bessmertnykh. But the talks will take place in Jerusalem, probably signaling that the Soviet Union is ready to restore diplomatic relations with Israel after a 24-year break.
Although Mr. Bessmertnykh visited Israel earlier this year, the use of Jerusalem as a venue for Baker-Pankin talks would seem to require that Soviet relations be upgraded first. Moscow announced earlier that it would restore diplomatic ties with Jerusalem in time for the start of a Middle East peace conference.
A senior State Department official who announced the Baker-Pankin meeting said that the United States has long encouraged the Soviet Union to resume normal relations with Israel.
The official said there has been "absolutely no change" in the plan by the United States and the Soviet Union to begin the conference before the end of this month. That gives Mr. Baker, possibly with help from Mr. Pankin, a little more than a week to nail down the procedural details and permit invitations to be issued at least 10 days in advance.
Even when issues involved are not especially sensitive, Mr. vTC Baker likes to keep his bargaining under wraps until the deal is done. But when the talks reach the delicate final stage, he becomes increasingly secretive.
Mr. Baker refused to talk to reporters on the flight to Egypt and avoided most contact with the press after his arrival in Cairo.
But his aides were unable to conceal their optimism that on this, his eighth trip to the region since the end of the Persian Gulf war, Mr. Baker will finally nail down agreement on what could be a historic peace conference.
Officials said that the major problem at this stage is that both Israeli and Arab officials have become increasingly nervous as the opening of the conference approaches. For this reason, the bargaining on the remaining matters has become much tougher, even though the issues themselves are less important than subjects that have already been decided.
Mr. Baker's schedule points to increasingly difficult talks. He starts in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak agreed long ago to attend the conference under almost any terms. Mr. Baker and Mr. Mubarak meet this morning before the secretary of state flies to Amman for talks tonight with Jordan's King Hussein. The problems with Jordan are a little more complex than those with Egypt but still considered relatively easily settled.
The real work of the trip will be done in Syria tomorrow and in Israel on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Syrian President Hafez el Assad visited Cairo on Saturday for talks with Mr. Mubarak, almost certainly about the proposed conference.
Mr. Baker said last week that the most difficult problem was the selection of Palestinian delegates to the conference. Although the Palestinian delegation will be joined with that of Jordan, officials say that it will operate independently, giving the Palestinians direct representation for the first time at such an international meeting.
The problem is that the Palestinians must be acceptable both to the Palestine Liberation Organization and to Israel -- a difficult trick. Israel refuses to deal directly with the PLO, which is considered the Palestinians' official representative both by Arab nations and by most Palestinians themselves.
Mr. Baker met last week in Washington with four prominent Palestinians and is scheduled to confer with them again Wednesday in Jerusalem.
Officials on Mr. Baker's aircraft refused to say anything about the substance of the talks with the Palestinians, but one official said Washington wanted to let the Palestinians announce the results of the meeting in their own way, possibly a tip-off that they have something to announce.