Secretary of State James A. Baker III, calling for resumed Mideast peace talks, has urged Arab and Israeli delegates to move subsequent negotiating rounds to a site closer to the region.
Baker's proposal for resuming talks in Washington on April 27, outlined in letters sent over the weekend to all participants, navigates between the preferences of the Arabs, who want to continue in Washington indefinitely, and the Israelis, who long have called for the talks to move to the Middle East.
Although Baker's attempt to force a compromise venue is somewhat more assertive than he has been during the last few rounds, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said that the U.S. government will maintain a hands-off attitude toward substantive issues.
"These parties are negotiating between themselves," she said.
She said that the United States and its nominal co-sponsor, Russia, would intervene only if requested to do so by both sides. So far, the Arabs have urged the United States to play a more active role, but Israel rejects any outside intervention.
"We will continue, as we have throughout, to make suggestions," Tutwiler said. "We have ideas, but we are not in the rooms and no one's asked us yet in the rooms."
U.S. officials concede privately that they do not expect much substantive progress until after Israel's elections in June. For this reason, an early American initiative is unlikely.
In the first four rounds, starting last November in Madrid, Israel has conducted separate negotiations with each of its Arab neighbors--Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians. Although U.S. officials said that all of the talks have gotten to matters of substance, there have been no breakthroughs. So far, the meetings have consisted primarily of each side stating its position without any attempt to reach compromise.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials are encouraged that the talks have continued without breaking down.
When the parties met here last month, Baker asked all sides to submit a list of sites that they would find acceptable. Only Israel has complied so far.
"Before April 27, we will announce the venue of the subsequent round of talks whether we have received the (Arab) list or not," Tutwiler said.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials said that it is unlikely that the resignation of Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy will have any direct impact on the talks. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has assigned responsibility for the negotiations to other officials, effectively cutting Levy out of the process.
Although Baker is known to consider Levy ineffective, Tutwiler said that the secretary of state was "sorry" to hear of the foreign minister's resignation.
"Secretary Baker is very appreciative of Minister Levy's commitment, support and contributions to the process of peace-making," Tutwiler said.
However, Tutwiler said that Baker does not plan to telephone Levy personally because such a move might be considered to be interference in the Israeli election process.