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Shultz fights `distortion' of US peace plan on Mideast trip. PUBLIC DIPLOMACY

This time around, Secretary of State George Shultz is selling the United States peace proposals as hard in public as he is in private. He preceded his return to the Middle East with briefings for Israeli and Arab journalists and started off his visit in Israel with a forceful arrival statement and major television interview.

Mr. Shultz and his aides concluded that vital aspects of the US plan had been distorted in public debate during and after the recent visit of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir to Washington. The distortions contribute to the continued deadlock in Israel's government over the plan and to the hesitancy of Jordan's King Hussein publicly to support it, US officials say. They also threaten the US consensus behind Shultz's efforts by giving the impression that somehow the proposal would betray Israel.

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Shultz's goal is to affect Israeli and Palestinian public opinion and thereby the domestic Israeli debate on the peace process.

At best, officials say, Shultz could generate domestic pressure for Israel's government to make a decision on the US plan. But equally important, he could help set the context of future debate.

``The best thing is if we can we can get direct negotiations going,'' says a well-placed US official. ``But if we don't get there, this [public diplomacy] puts very tangible and workable proposals forward publicly so they can be a baseline for future Arab dialogue.... In Israel these ideas, combined with the Palestinian uprising, can help form the context for the election debate between Labor and Likud,'' the official adds.

US officials quickly say they are not ``trying to jump into Israel's election,'' nor are they against Mr. Shamir and certainly not against Israel.

Shultz will try to correct misperceptions in four key areas, officials say.

International conference. The US does not support a conference with full powers, which could force Israel into a bad deal. The conference is only an umbrella for bilateral negotiations.

United Nations Resolution 242. The US has not shifted its interpretation of the resolution. Washington has said consistently that 242 means negotiating land for peace on all fronts.

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Camp David. The US is not reneging on the Camp David accords in the new proposal. US officials say Camp David was 9 years ago and despite all-out efforts, no progress has been made on Palestinian autonomy. It is ``terribly legalistic and ahistoric,'' says one, to argue that the spirit of Camp David can't be worked into a proposal to meet today's needs.

Meeting Palestinians. Shultz's recent meeting with two US-citizen members of the Palestine National Council was aimed at getting Palestinians into the process, but not at legitimizing the PLO, as Mr. Shamir and others charge.

Shamir apparently is trying to bide time until the US and Israeli elections, US officials say. ``He fears the process because it may lead to decisions he doesn't want to take,'' says one. Despite his reservations, says another, his Likud bloc does not want the US effort defeated because it has no peace alternative.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and the Labor Party don't want the chance of the plan being defeated in the evenly divided Cabinet, officials say. Thus unless Israeli public opinion budges, the Cabinet may not even vote on the US plan before elections expected this fall.

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