Jordan links talks to Syrian presence


JERUSALEM -- Jordan's King Hussein declined yesterday to commit himself to attend a Mideast conference in the absence of Syria, casting doubt on what U.S. and Israeli officials see as a possible alternative to the faltering U.S. peace initiative.

His reluctance served to increase pressure on Israel to go at least part way toward meeting conditions set down by Syria or face equal blame for collapse of the effort.

As Secretary of State James A. Baker III neared the climax of what could be a make-or-break mission to set up a peace conference, he made a dramatic entry to Israel by walking across a wooden bridge over the Jordan River and then motorcading through the occupied West Bank.

He immediately met with a delegation of Palestinians, whose spokesman, Faisal Husseini, assured reporters afterward that they would be flexible.

Mr. Husseini said the meeting was "extremely frank" and delved into "the most difficult issues."

"We know all the American positions," he said. "We hope we will be able to overcome some obstacles that are not because of us but because of others. The Palestinian leadership is proving flexible."

Mr. Baker holds an open-ended and possibly decisive meeting today with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who has shown no willingness to compromise on two key procedural points while not wanting to abandon the process.

In Washington, President Bush said he was "not discouraged." .

After meeting with King Hussein in Amman, Mr. Baker heaped praise on the monarch, who only weeks ago got a Washington cold shoulder and disruption in aid for supporting Iraq in the Persian Gulf conflict.

"I'm very, very pleased with the discussions -- both the discussions we've had in the larger groups and the discussions we have had in tete-a-tete form today," Mr. Baker said.

The king didn't flatly say Jordan would attend a conference, but said he had not met Mr. Baker in order "to waste his time and ours."

Asked whether he would attend if Syria didn't, he ducked. Asked if he would refuse to go if Syria weren't there, he replied: "I haven't said that."

"Will you go to a conference if Syria is not there?"

"I haven't said that, either," the king said.

U.S. and Israeli officials have cited the possibility of cutting Syria because of its procedural deadlock with Israel. But Mr. Baker is clearly reluctant to do this.

Syria wants full United Nations participation and a continuing conference that could reconvene periodically to bring pressure for a settlement. Israel wants a one-time conference that would break up for bilateral talks and only reconvene to ratify a settlement.

On the key questions separating Israel and Syria, King Hussein leaned toward Syria's position.

On a continuing conference, he said, "we definitely feel very, very strongly that once the process starts, we can't afford to turn back. And if we do so for any reason, then the side that is responsible for that will have to take an historic responsibility for obstructing a solution. . . ."

Mr. Baker's motorcade traveled through the West Bank past an abandoned Palestinian refugee camp, stores shut down as a protest against Israeli occupation, desolate landscape and Jewish settlements.

His trip carried a dual message. To the Israelis, he said, "You realize when you drive like that, rather than flying, just how short the distances are and how important, therefore, it is to promote peaceful coexistence."

But he also said he had driven through the West Bank "so we could get a better feel for exactly what the situation on the ground is."

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