MADRID, SPAIN ELB — MADRID, Spain -- On the eve of the historic Middle East peace conference, President Bush pledged the United States to act as catalyst in the difficult negotiations ahead but vowed it would not try to impose a settlement.
Although administration officials have indicated that Washington would offer -- or withhold -- economic incentives to induce the parties to compromise, Mr. Bush avoided any statement yesterday that might agitate in the tense final hours before the conference begins.
"This is too sensitive a time," he told reporters. "I don't want to give anybody any reason whatsoever to walk away or to make additional demands because of something I said."
Meanwhile, Palestinians here drew hope from what they interpreted as signs of moderation from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
But Israel and Syria remained at odds over where bilateral talks, due to follow the conference, would occur. Israel wants them to shift between Israel and Syria, while Syria wants them to continue in Madrid. Meetings with Secretary of State James A. Baker III failed to resolve the issue last night.
And terrorist forces launched new attacks in the Middle East in an attempt to derail the talks, drawing renewed condemnation from Mr. Bush and a public refusal by Mr. Shamir to abandon the talks.
The conference opens today at 10:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m. EST) with speeches by Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, Mr. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, co-sponsors of the talks. Speeches by the European Community representative and Egypt are scheduled for the afternoon.
Mr. Bush plans a series of meetings with delegation heads beforehand, starting at 7:30 a.m. with Mr. Shamir.
His speech will attempt to lay out a vision and persuade all parties to move ahead constructively, officials have said.
"What I want to do is point out things that might go right," Mr. Bush said yesterday.
He refused repeatedly to be drawn into saying anything that might disrupt the talks, even a restatement of his own strongly held view that a settlement requires a trade of Israeli-occupied territory for peace with Palestinians and Syria.
"What is important here is getting the parties together. And one way you don't do that is for either the Soviet Union or the United States to try to impose a settlement. So let them sort it out. We're available. We're there -- the Soviet side, the U.S. side.
"But we're not here to impose a settlement. We are here to be a catalyst," Mr. Bush said. "I think the worst thing we could do is reiterate our own positions to such a degree that one side or another became disenchanted before they even talk to each other."
Mr. Baker reiterated later that the United States and the Soviet Union would join in the direct talks only at the request of both sides. This is an apparent effort to assure Israel that it will be allowed to negotiate without heavy-handed, outside interference.
But Mr. Gorbachev, at a news conference with Mr. Bush, explained, "This does not mean that we are simply going to stand on the side and that it doesn't really make any difference to us what happens."
He said the United States and Soviets would "use everything that we have to find the keys, to find all the right chords, to get rid of all those old, outdated issues and problems.
"We're not going to substitute by our actions that which happens at the negotiations," he said.
In its role as "honest broker," the United States sees itself as giving all sides time to get used to talking directly to one another and trying to persuade them that they're "better off buying on [to a settlement] than rejecting," a senior administration official told reporters in Washington before going to Madrid.
"Where we are in the Middle East is not that you need made-in-America ideas for solving the Middle East problem," he said.
The Bush administration plans to attach conditions to loan guarantees aimed at curbing Israeli settlement of the occupied territories and prodding it toward economic reform.
But rather than use economic pressure on Israel to spur a settlement, the administration is more inclined to try to offer incentives to all parties in the form of financial help, guarantees and peacekeeping forces.
"I am very open to looking at ways to buttress and provide incentives," the senior official said.
Yesterday Mr. Baker denied reports of plans to appoint a special envoy to oversee the talks, indicating he would maintain an active role.
The ABC, NBC and CBS broadcast networks plan continued coverage of the Middle East peace conference in Madrid, Spain, during their morning shows and evening news programs.
No special reports, which would pre-empt regular programming, are planned, the networks said. The same holds true for PBS and CNN.