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Baker Plays Down Split On Peace Talks

ARMED with a written inventory of the steps that Israel is ready to take to help launch a Middle East peace conference - and those that it refuses to take - US Secretary of State James Baker III left for home on Thursday to consult with President Bush about the future of his peace initiative. There are ``only two areas I am aware of of continuing disagreement,'' Mr. Baker said after a total of ten hours of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

The key problems still stalling the plan, he said, were the role of the United Nations at any meeting, and whether an international conference could reconvene after having broken into direct negotiations between Israel and its neighbors.

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Israel had slightly modified its refusal to allow the UN any role or the conference to reconvene, a senior US official told reporters Thursday, but not enough to resolve the issues.

The Arab countries, most notably Syria, insist that the UN play a key role in any conference, and that the meeting should be able to reconvene if bilateral talks run into difficulties.

Baker is hopeful, says the senior official, that he has worked out a formula for Palestinian representation that Israel will accept. (Israel refuses to talk to avowed Palestine Liberation Organization members.) He would give no details, but the plan is understood to be based on a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation to the talks. While Jordan's King Hussein said Tuesday that he would favorably consider this if Palestinians request it, Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories are unenthusiastic .

``They were disappointed that Baker is insisting on a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation,'' said Palestinian newspaper editor Hanna Siniora. ``The trend in the territories and in the PLO is for a separate delegation.''

Israel and Syria, however, continue to be deeply divided. Mr. Shamir is understood to have offered to accept the presence at a conference of an envoy sent by UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, on the condition that he not represent the world body as such, and that he not have the right to speak.

This is a far cry from Damascus's contention that if the conference is to resolve the Middle East crisis on the basis of UN Resolutions 242 and 338 (which favor an exchange of ``land for peace'') as President Bush envisages, then the UN should play a role in implementing its own resolutions.

The Israeli premier is also reported to have softened his refusal to allow the conference to do more than meet for a ceremonial opening, and is now ready to see the meeting reconvene after nine months to hear a report on progress made during bilateral peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbors.

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Although the senior US official said Washington had not given up hopes of bridging the gap between Israel and Syria, US policymakers are already mapping out a strategy in case they fail.

This would leave Syria on the sidelines, and abandon Baker's ``twin track'' approach to resolving the Palestinian question as well as the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, the US would focus on bringing Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians together to negotiate the future of the Palestinians and the occupied lands.

Baker made just such an effort a year ago, however, but eventually gave up, frustrated, he said, by Israeli intransigence.

Palestinians also remember their attempts six years ago to enter joint talks alongside the Jordanians. A prominent Palestinian involved was assassinated by a Syrian-backed gunman, and the message was clear. Whether King Hussein or leading Palestinians would be prepared to launch talks with Israel in the face of Syrian opposition is by no means clear, local analysts say.

``The Americans say they can neutralize the Syrian role, but can they really?'' wonders Mr. Siniora. ``They cannot even deliver a halt to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I wonder how much they can deliver with the Syrians.''

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