DAMASCUS, Syria -- Yielding to strong pressure from the United States, the six oil-rich gulf states announced yesterday that they would send an observer to an Arab-Israeli peace conference and are willing to deal directly with Israel on such regional issues as arms control, water and the environment.
The Arabs' commitment, announced by the Gulf Cooperation Council in Luxembourg, was the first significant boost for the Mideast peace process in weeks and marked a reversal of the gulf states' previous refusal to become directly involved in the negotiations at an early stage.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, arriving here for talks today with Syrian President Hafez el Assad, said the decision means that "Arab states will attend the conference if a conference is held, if we can resolve the other issues that need to be resolved."
A senior U.S. official said the prospect of holding talks with Saudi Arabia and the five other gulf states would be an enticement for Israel to soften its tough conditions for entering peace talks.
The GCC is the joint defense body made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain.
Because of their oil wealth and Saudi Arabia's role as custodian of the Muslim holy places at Mecca and Medina, the gulf states wield substantial influence in the Arab world.
U.S. officials believe the decision may also prod Syria into compromise by showing that other Arab governments are willing to talk to Israel and by raising the possibility that Syria could be left out of the process, a point Mr. Baker hinted at yesterday on his arrival here.
The decision was announced as Mr. Baker flew here at the start of his fourth, and possibly final, trip to put peace talks together.
En route here, a senior U.S. official said Mr. Baker was unwilling to be "Shultzed" -- forced to endure the stalling encountered by his predecessor, George P. Shultz -- and would not continue trying to get a peace conference started unless he got results soon.
Mr. Baker envisions peace talks on two levels, the primary one being a conference that would lead to direct negotiations involving Israel, Syria and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
The aim of those talks is to implement United Nations resolutions calling on Israel to trade territory for peace and secure borders, although Israel has refused to say that it is willing to yield any land.
The second level would be "working groups" to deal with region-wide problems of arms proliferation, shrinking water resources and other issues that threaten stability.
The gulf states don't want to join in negotiations over land and Palestinian rights since they have no territorial dispute with Israel, nor do the Syrians want them to.
But their previous reluctance to get involved, even symbolically, had been a major blow to Mr. Baker's efforts, given that the United States went to war to ensure stability in the Persian Gulf and plans a growing postwar military commitment there.
Saudi Arabia's earlier stance gave Israel added reason not to cooperate in the U.S. efforts and angered many members of Congress.
The Saudis, whose leadership turned inward to deal with domestic concerns after the gulf war, was seen to be reneging on a pledge to take a more active role in the peace process, although U.S. officials were confident of getting their help eventually.
Yesterday's statement was driven by high-level Bush administration pressure on the Saudis.
The gulf states said that they were taking the steps "in support of the peace process and current efforts to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to reach a just solution to the Palestinian question."
Qatar's foreign minister, Mubarak Bin Ali Al-Khater, said in Luxembourg that the GCC was making the commitment "in realization of the efforts of the secretary of state."
U.S. officials had anticipated on Mr. Baker's last trip that the Saudis would enter the peace process in the follow-on stage of talks on regional issues, but the gulf states had not agreed to do so until yesterday.
These talks would deal with banning weapons of mass destruction and possibly placing curbs on conventional
weapons. The United States, the Soviet Union, Canada and Germany are trying to develop ways of limiting weapon sales at the supplier end.
Mr. Baker told reporters traveling with him yesterday that the gulf states' action meant that Saudi Arabia and the five other countries would be "sitting down face to face with Israel in direct negotiations."
This would break "at least one major taboo in the sense that we will have Arab governments sitting down and negotiating with Israel," he said.
The six Arab countries would be represented at a peace conference by the GCC's secretary general, Abdulla Beshara, a Kuwaiti.
They remain technically at war with Israel and maintain both a boycott against the Jewish state and a secondary boycott against firms that do business with it.
A senior administration official disclosed that the United States had pressed the Saudis to suspend the boycott in exchange for a halt in new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories but, he said, "We haven't gotten anything from either side."
The official, while "hopeful," acknowledged that since Mr. Baker's last trip, little progress had been made toward solving most of the procedural problems blocking a peace conference: what roles the United Nations and the Europeans would play, and whether the conference could later reconvene.
Some progress had been made on a Palestinian delegation, the official indicated. The United States hopes Israel's refusal to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization and with Arabs from East Jerusalem, can be masked by a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation.
Mr. Baker has blamed Israel for most of the stalling so far and has structured his current trip so that he meets with Israeli officials last -- after seeing Mr. Assad, Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh and Palestinian representatives.
Thus, he may be in a position to present Israel with a "take it or leave it" package on a peace conference jointly sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union.