WASHINGTON -- Israel, facing a serious propaganda defeat, edged away yesterday from its refusal to attend peace talks here Dec. 4, with its ambassador saying the actual date was not the main issue involved.
While no change is likely to be announced before Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir meets with his Cabinet tomorrow, the comments of Ambassador Zalman Shoval suggested that Israel realized it had been outmaneuvered.
Rather than insisting on a delay, Israel seemed to be looking for both tangible and symbolic ways of minimizing the U.S. role in the talks and forcing each Arab delegation to deal separately and directly with Israel.
In Jerusalem, Mr. Shamir refused to back down publicly on the request for a five-day delay, but he left the door open for compromise, the Associated Press reported.
"Talks are continuing in Washington. If something new will come up, it could be that something new may come up here also," he told a gathering of Israeli newspaper editors.
Ambassador Shoval met for an hour and 45 minutes yesterday with two senior aides to Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Dennis Ross and Edward Djerejian. Afterward, he told reporters that the date for starting talks "is not really the main issue. The main issue is whether our Arab counterparts are serious about the peace process.
"I think it's time after 100 years of warfare to discuss peace seriously, to talk to us directly, which they are still refusing to do, to communicate with us directly about such questions as venues and dates, which may look as minor problems -- and maybe they are minor problems -- but the major problem is to talk to each other directly."
The United States refused Wednesday to delay the talks until Dec. 9 to suit Israel, saying that facilities would be "open and ready" Dec. 4. All the Arab parties have said that they will come on that date. Empty Israeli seats would give the Arabs a propaganda windfall.
Mr. Shoval acknowledged that Israel did not want to be in the position of being the only party absent.
Although he did not address the point, Israel's absence could also sour U.S. public opinion when Israel is still seeking $10 billion in loan guarantees to absorb Soviet Jews.
U.S. officials, not wanting to exert further public pressure on Israel, declined to make any comment yesterday beyond saying that consultations were continuing. Mr. Djerejian also met yesterday with Syrian Ambassador Walid Al-Moualem.
Israeli sources stressed yesterday that questions of location, date and format all derive from the "cornerstone" issue of ensuring that direct, bilateral negotiations ensue.