WASHINGTON -- The United States presented Arabs and Israelis with a take-it-or-leave it proposal yesterday to resume direct Middle East peace talks in Washington Dec. 4.
The move, widely anticipated following the peace conference in Madrid, Spain, is expected to be accepted, however grudgingly, by all sides.
The talks will launch the actual hard bargaining between Israelis and Palestinians and between Israel and its neighboring Arab states aimed at producing a comprehensive settlement of the Mideast conflict.
The sessions will include negotiations on territory, mutual security and peace between Israel and Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and talks aimed at limited autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The United States was forced to step in after the parties were unable to agree on a site in the three weeks since their formal opening in Madrid. Washington was no one's first choice and has drawn strong objections from both Israel and Syria.
"It is important to give the parties the chance to work this out, but it is even more important to resume the direct talks," State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said.
Cables were sent from the State Department at 8 p.m. Thursday despite last-minute arguments raised by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in a meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
Mr. Shamir declined yesterday to say whether Israel would attend. He is expected to take up the issue with his Cabinet tomorrow. Israelis fear that the choice of Washington will enable Arabs to deal more with the U.S. government than with Israel. They wanted the talks in the Middle East, which would register a measure of acceptance of Israel in the Arab world.
In a nod to Israel, Miss Tutwiler said, "We want to make clear the view of the United States that, over time, there is no reason to exclude holding negotiations in the region."
This would allow "close proximity for the negotiators to consult with their respective political leaderships."
Israel, despite its close ties with the United States, faces an additional challenge in the growing positive media exposure here given to Palestinian leaders Hanan Ashrawi and Faisal Husseini, advisers to a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation.
Syria, which remains on the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors, stands to be the most isolated of all the participants in Washington.
U.S. officials now face the job of working out, as they did in Madrid, the small but symbol-laden details of timing and whether the three sets of talks -- Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation -- are held at separate sites or one, and start simultaneously or in sequence.
Government buildings -- possibly the State Department itself -- or private buildings that the government often uses are the most likely sites. The talks will be held at expert levels, below that of foreign ministers, with Mr. Baker willing to step in if required.
While invitations were issued jointly with the Soviet Union, co-sponsor of the Madrid conference, the United States is likely to share the mediation task less with the Soviets than with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Newly returned Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze plans to be deeply absorbed in interrepublic affairs.
But the United States is anxious for the Soviets to keep a visible role, particularly now that Mr. Shevardnadze, who commands world respect, has returned. So it appeared increasingly likely yesterday that the third phase of the process -- multilateral talks on a variety of regional issues -- would open in Moscow next month.
The growing number of countries in this phase may reach more than 30, including Israel, many Arab states and other states with economic or political ties to the region, such as members of the European Community, Japan, Canada and China.