Baker Plans New Talks on Arab-Israeli Peace : Diplomacy: He sees ‘a window of opportunity’ after his 10-day trip if the United States moves quickly.


Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Saturday that he will launch a new round of talks toward Arab-Israeli peace this week, seeking quick agreement on initial “confidence-building measures” to defuse the longest running conflict in the Middle East.

Baker, who completed a 10-day, seven-nation tour of the Middle East and the Soviet Union on Saturday, said his first round of talks convinced him that there is “a window of opportunity” to move toward genuine peace negotiations--if the United States moves quickly.

His announcement that the next stage will begin immediately after his return to Washington this morning signaled that the Bush Administration has decided to put its full energy into the effort in an attempt to capitalize quickly on the broad influence won through U.S. leadership in the Persian Gulf War.

As such, the new Middle East initiative will be the most difficult test yet for President Bush’s idea of a “new world order”: Can the idea of nations dealing with each other on the basis of fair play work in a region where blood feuds extend from one generation to the next?

“What we’re going to be doing is testing it, by putting specific ideas and proposals to them--to see whether or not old stereotypes can be broken, old rigid and inflexible positions can be adjusted or compromised, because without that there can’t be peace,” Baker said.


During his talks in the region, he said, “we found broad support for our ideas on security (and) a consensus that now is the time to move on arms control and the peace process.”

“Now that we have broad agreement on some of our concepts, we’ll begin to follow up on specifics,” he told reporters traveling on his airplane from Moscow to Ankara, the capital of Turkey.

He said he will begin asking Israel, the Arab countries and Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to begin making specific gestures in a series of conversations this week.

“In some cases, we will be addressing maybe one specific (issue) and saying: ‘What do you think about (this)? How does the following strike you? Suppose we were willing to get X to do Y; would you then be willing to do Z?’ That kind of thing,” he said.

He said he will be working primarily by telephone, but he did not rule out another trip to the region soon. Other officials said Baker might also meet with emissaries from the Middle East in Washington.

Baker has refused to divulge the specific actions he has discussed with Israel and the Arabs. But other officials have suggested that among the gestures Israel could make would be to ease curfews and travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Arabs, in turn, could agree to talk with Israel about issues such as water rights and trade, they said.

During his talks with Arabs and Israelis, he said, “I learned how very intractable this problem is.” But at the same time, he added: “I have gotten the distinct impression . . . that the parties to the conflict really want true reconciliation. Whether that impression turns out to be correct, we will have to wait and see as we test it.”

Other officials said they have been most impressed by the new moderation shown by the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria, both of whom told Baker they are ready to make peace with Israel after 43 years of hostility.

And they insisted--despite tough public statements from Israel--that Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, at least, appears to be willing to move toward a compromise that would give back Arab land in exchange for peace.

But the next phase of Baker’s diplomacy is likely to be considerably more difficult than the first. On this trip, Baker told the leaders he met with that he was not asking for any specific gestures or commitments, only ideas. But now he will be asking for actions--and, presumably, putting pressure on the countries involved to measure up.

Baker said Soviet officials offered general support for the U.S. initiative during his talks in Moscow last week. But reporters on his airplane were also told that the Soviet military is increasingly defining Moscow’s interests as different from those of the United States, and that trend might make cooperation difficult.

A key question, a senior official said, is “whether or not their interests would be so at variance with ours that (cooperation) wouldn’t be possible.”

“It is distinctly possible that they will have different ideas, and some of those different ideas will be apparent as we begin the debate in the (U.N.) Security Council next week,” he said.

The debate will focus on the conditions for a permanent cease-fire in Iraq. The official noted that the Soviet Union disagrees with the United States on whether a cease-fire should be declared immediately (the Soviet Union says yes, the United States says no); on whether economic sanctions against Iraq should be continued (the United States says yes, the Soviet Union says no), and how the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border should be fixed (the Soviet Union says Iraq should be allowed to negotiate the issue, but the United States disagrees).

Baker’s three-day stay in Moscow also ended in deadlock on the main arms-control issue he came to discuss: the treaty on conventional armed forces in Europe.

Under the treaty, the Soviet Union must cut its tank forces in Europe by 50%, or roughly 11,700 tanks, along with similar cuts in aircraft, artillery and troops.

But after the Soviets, the United States and 20 other countries signed the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty last November, the Soviet military announced that it had transferred about 3,500 tanks from the army to the navy--thus exempting them from the pact, which doesn’t cover naval forces.

Baker and other Western officials charged that the move was an attempt to evade the intent of treaty by allowing the Soviet Union to keep tanks that the pact says should be destroyed.

Baker said publicly for the first time Friday that the United States is holding up final agreement on a strategic arms reduction treaty (START), which would reduce U.S. and Soviet long-range nuclear missiles by about 30%, until the CFE problem is resolved.

Asked when START will be concluded, Baker replied: “We must first solve this question regarding a treaty that has already been signed,” referring to the CFE pact.

As a result, a senior official added, the United States will not agree to schedule the next summit meeting between Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev until the conventional arms problems are settled.

He said that Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, the chief of the Soviet general staff, began a negotiating session on the issue Friday with “a long, hard, tough position.” By Saturday morning, Soviet officials were already offering compromise proposals, but U.S. negotiators judged them insufficient.

Baker spent four hours with Gorbachev on Friday and came away reassured that the Soviet leader remains committed to the sweeping political and economic reforms he launched six years ago, despite reversals during the last year.

“I believe (that) Gorbachev in his heart and mind is committed to continuing reform and making it succeed,” said the senior official traveling on Baker’s plane. “He is not likely to opt . . . for a complete reversal.”

Baker stopped in Ankara for three hours Saturday evening to outline his Middle East initiative to President Turgut Ozal, who was a key U.S. ally during the Gulf War.

Ozal was believed to be particularly anxious to talk to Baker about the future of Iraq, where Kurdish rebels claim to be in control of territory near Iraq’s frontier with Turkey.