WASHINGTON -- The United States rebuffed Israel's demand to shift the date of direct Middle East peace negotiations yesterday and won acceptance from Syria and the Palestinians last night to attend as planned on Dec. 4.
The combined moves threatened to cast Israel as the sole intransigent party.
The Bush administration was responding to Israel's move early yesterday to reschedule the talks for Dec. 9 and to attach a series of conditions on the resumption of direct negotiations with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Washington intends to have facilities "ready and open" on Dec. 4. But the United States said that the facilities would remain open "on dates after Dec. 4" and kept alive the possibility of changing the starting date if both Arabs and Israelis agreed.
In Israel, a senior member of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government quickly said that Israel would not change its mind.
Health Minister Ehud Olmert told state radio: "I'm glad to hear that the facilities will be open and there will be guards and rooms. I hope when we come there we will find them. . . . We will use all sort of rooms, but those we will not use before Dec. 9."
Israel was not willing to let the United States determine the time ++ and place for future sessions, while the State Department was not willing to allow disagreement between Israel and the Arab parties to prevent the talks from taking place.
Israel, the Arab states and the PalestiniSee TALKS, 8A, Col. 1TALKS, from 1Aans had failed to agree on the procedural details for meeting again. After three weeks without any progress, Secretary of State James A. Baker III then did as expected by calling for the round of talks in Washington.
In a carefully worded statement earlier in the day, State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler had said the United States was "delighted" that Israel had accepted Washington as a location for the next round of talks, disregarding the Jewish state's unwillingness to hold more than procedural talks here before shifting negotiations to the Middle East.
Since Jordan and Lebanon had already accepted the Dec. 4 date, "it would be inappropriate for us to unilaterally change it," Miss Tutwiler said. "We will have the negotiation facilities ready and open on Dec. 4, and they will be available on dates after Dec. 4."
Yesterday evening, Syria said it would attend on Dec. 4. The Palestinians followed suit shortly afterward.
Both Syria and the Palestinians, like Israel, had set conditions: in Syria's case, that the talks continue in Washington and deal with substance immediately; in the Palestinians', that Palestine Liberation Organization representatives be granted visas.
The United States refused to be drawn into what Miss Tutwiler called "wrangling" over conditions for attendance, and it refused to issue visas for PLO officials.
Israelis were infuriated when the United States cabled invitations last Thursday before Mr. Shamir, who was in Washington, could make his argument to President Bush against holding the talks here, although he had spoken with Mr. Baker.
Israel wants the talks held in the Middle East as a way of registering a measure of acceptance of the Jewish state by the Arab world. It also fears that if the talks are held in Washington, Arabs will try to work through the United States instead of dealing face to face with Israelis.
It is willing to accept a site closer to the region -- Cyprus or Rhodes -- but Arabs have not responded.
Israeli officials maintained that their response to the United States was positive. "If the Arabs are willing to meet on the 4th, I JTC assume they will be willing to meet us on the 9th," said Benjamin Netanyahu, a deputy to Mr. Shamir. "We're honestly and sincerely trying to get to a process that will succeed."
Dr. Haidar Abdul-Shafi, head of the Palestinian delegation, called the Israeli decision "frustrating."
"I don't see the validity of this," he was quoted as saying in Amman, Jordan. "Really, I think they are just stalling."
Ehud Gol, Mr. Shamir's spokesman, said that Israel wanted no more than two sessions to take place in Washington.
If and when the talks reconvene in the region, Israel would oppose negotiating with all the Arab parties at the same place or at the same time. As briefly described by Mr. Gol, Israel favors dealing with each party one at time, with a break of 45 days between each set of talks.
Israel apparently hopes to use any delay to lobby for limiting the talks in Washington to discussing a shift of negotiations to the Middle East.
The decision by the rightist government was criticized by opposition parties, which had backed Mr. Shamir's conduct in the peace process. Shimon Peres, leader of the Labor Party, said that Mr. Shamir's "stubbornness" about meeting in the region was "only causing us harm."
"It is in Israel's interest to prove that it is the one leading the peace process," Mr. Peres said. "The government is doing exactly the opposite."