Secretary of State James A. Baker III, trying to revive his flagging Middle East peace initiative, called on Israeli officials Wednesday to put into writing the points of agreement and disagreement on the procedure for a proposed regional peace conference.
Although the exercise was intended only to summarize and clarify the results of Baker's four trips to the region since the end of the Persian Gulf War, it apparently sparked a lively new debate over just what had been determined previously.
Baker and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir spent about five hours poring over the draft without finishing the job. Lower-ranking officials from both countries were told to spend all night, if necessary, combing out the ambiguities in advance of another Baker-Shamir meeting today. The American delegation is then scheduled to return to Washington.
Although Shamir's press adviser, Avi Pazner, described the talks as "businesslike," there was no indication that Israel was prepared to compromise on any of the issues that separate it from its Arab adversaries.
Israel's state-run radio said the government will not yield on its refusal to permit the United Nations to participate in the proposed conference. Syria, on the other hand, insists on a major role for the United Nations.
"We are trying to sum up understandings that have emerged in all our meetings," Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said.
"If the Arabs indeed show a desire for peace, this represents progress," Levy said. "I'm an optimist about everything regarding the relationship between Israel and the United States. As for the Arabs, they will have to prove their intentions."
A U.S. official said Baker and his staff are "working with the government of Israel to clarify areas of common understanding and areas of still outstanding issues."
The official added that the United States is not "asking for a final commitment from the government of Israel" concerning items in the document. However, the effort clearly is intended to make it more difficult for the Israelis to claim later that their intentions were misunderstood.
Ever since he began his current swing through the region in Damascus last Sunday, Baker has been asserting that Israel and its Arab adversaries have reached agreement on far more procedural points than remain in dispute.
However, he admits that Israel and Syria are far apart on the remaining controversies, which must be settled if the proposed conference, which would be co-sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union, is ever going to take place.
Baker's object in Israel was to lock in agreements and clarify areas that remain in dispute. This would apparently permit President Bush to decide if there is any chance of reaching an ultimate agreement on the terms for a conference that would initiate direct talks between Israel and the neighboring Arab states and between Israel and the Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Both U.S. and Israeli officials refused to discuss the substance of the Baker-Shamir talks. However, an Israeli official said Baker began the meeting by offering his summary of previous Israeli positions.
In a personal gesture to Baker, Shamir gave the secretary of state a certificate stating that 96 trees were planted in a Jerusalem park in honor of Baker's mother, who died last month at the age of 96. Baker was in the midst of a meeting with Shamir when he received the word of his mother's death, and he was forced to cut that visit short.