CAIRO, Egypt -- The U.S. secretary of state is trying to get Arab leaders to accept Israel's partial freeze on Jewish settlements as good enough for peace.
James A. Baker III visited Syria and Egypt yesterday to promote the Mideast peace talks even though Israel has not met the total freeze that Arab countries and the United States have required.
Since he took office last week, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has put an abrupt clamp on new construction of Jewish settlements in most of the Arab territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.
But he has made clear he will continue Jewish settlement of East Jerusalem, as well as along Arab borders in the Jordan Valley and Golan Heights. He also has promised existing settlements will be allowed to stay.
Mr. Baker is trying to sell the idea that this step by the Israeli government is sufficient to proceed with peace. He is country-hopping around the Mideast to urge Arab leaders to look at the big picture, not the fine print.
"There will be substantial and severe limitations and curtailment of settlement activities in the territories by [the Israeli] government," Mr. Baker said yesterday.
"I am really very satisfied in the philosophy and the orientation of this new government in Israel toward the question of settlements. There really is a new approach, and it's one that frankly pleases the United States."
He noted that "all of the details have not been spelled out and agreed to." It is these details Mr. Baker is trying to smooth over in his discussions in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
The Arab countries and Palestinian negotiators have demanded that Israel freeze settlements in all land seized in the 1967 war. U.S. policy has been identical to that position, and the United States has never recognized Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem.
But Mr. Baker is clearly anxious to overcome that hurdle without solving it. It is uncertain if he will be able to carry the Arabs with him.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak confirmed yesterday that the Israeli prime minister had brought the same message in his trip to Egypt Tuesday. He noted that the Israeli position on settlements falls short of Arab demands. But Mr. Mubarak did not dwell on the matter in his public remarks.
"What's being offered still needs much more, so as to persuade the Arab countries to go quickly and much more vigorously in the peace process," he said. "Everybody is ready to do whatever he can to help the new government in Israel to go on negotiating the peace."
"The man [Mr. Rabin] is only one week in office. What do you expect him to do, miracles in one week?" he asked. "We shouldn't be in a hurry. . . . Give him some time."
But it is Mr. Baker's time that is being watched closely. He reacted sharply to U.S. press reports that he soon will join President Bush's re-election campaign, saying there has been "no decision" on his leaving.
"Until you hear it from the president or secretary of state, ''TC wouldn't put book on it," Mr. Baker said.