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Israel offers no major concessions on peace talks, officials say


JERUSALEM -- Top U.S. and Israeli officials worked strenuously yesterday to revive momentum for a Middle East peace conference, but Israel offered no significant concession on the two key questions still blocking agreement, officials said.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III, returning to his hotel last night after a day of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and two other Cabinet members, replied, "I think so, yeah," when asked if he was making progress.

A senior U.S. official later cautioned against reading too much into Mr. Baker's "casual walkaway line."

While noting that there were "many more areas of agreement than disagreement," this official said that Israel had yielded basically nothing on a United Nations role at the conference and whether the parley could convene more than once.

The official did not rule out the possibility that some Israeli concession could emerge by this morning, when Mr. Baker meets again with Mr. Shamir, Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Moshe Arens.

While Baker staffers returned to the King David Hotel in late evening, Mr. Baker's top Mideast expert, Dennis Ross, was due to continue working into the night with a senior aide to Mr. Shamir.

Syrian President Hafez el Assad wants U.N. participation as well as a continuing conference that exerts pressure on bilateral Arab-Israeli negotiators for a settlement in which Israel gives up territory, including the Golan Heights.

Israel, resisting international pressure, has rejected both conditions.

The Baker party has stayed in frequent contact over the last two days with Damascus and Amman.

If Syria can't be persuaded to join a conference under the terms already agreed upon, the question then becomes one of whether Mr. Assad will try to block others from moving forward.

Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, both eager to get a conference under way, are expected to go to Damascus over the next few days.

Pressure mounted on Israeli officials to show flexibility yesterday as they faced being cast alongside arch-foe Syria as the spoilers in the peace process.

But senior U.S. and Israeli officials denied reports last night that a joint statement would emerge from the lengthy U.S.-Israeli meetings.

Their efforts were aimed, a U.S. official said, at clarifying "areas of common understanding and areas of still outstanding issues."

"The U.S. is not asking today for a formal commitment from the government of Israel, and there are many more areas of agreement than disagreement."

An Israeli official earlier described the talks as developing an "inventory" of common understandings.

A U.S. official had told reporters earlier this week that if Mr. Baker's mission achieved nothing else, it would make clear "exactly" where everyone stood.

All parties are agreed on the central issue, according to Mr. Baker: They are willing to attend a conference sponsored by the United States and Soviet Union for direct negotiations between Israel and its neighbors, and all support direct talks between Israel and Palestinians.

"The latter negotiations," Mr. Baker said Tuesday, will be "for the purpose of achieving a comprehensive settlement based on 242 and 338," the U.N. resolutions calling for Israel to cede territory in return for peace and secure borders.

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