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Baker gives Syria new proposal for Mideast peace conference


LISBON, Portugal -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III gave Syria a new U.S. proposal for the shape of an Arab-Israeli peace conference yesterday, marking a new attempt by the Bush administration to revive its stalled Middle East peace initiative.

Mr. Baker handed a letter from President Bush to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and asked him to carry the message to Syria's President Hafez el Assad.

Mr. Baker, who met with Mr. al-Sharaa for two hours at a hotel here, said it was "a detailed letter" that he wanted to outline "face to face."

The two officials refused to disclose the substance of the letter or their discussions. But when asked whether the letter was &&TC; direct invitation to Mr. Assad to attend a peace conference convened by the United States and the Soviet Union -- a unilateral move that some have proposed as a way to break the procedural logjam -- Mr. Baker smiled and said, "It is not an invitation."

Mr. al-Sharaa said the hastily arranged meeting was "very useful." Asked whether it had restarted progress toward peace negotiations, he said, "I hope so."

A U.S. official said the letter centered on the procedures and conditions under which a peace conference could take place -- in effect another attempt to break the impasse between Israel and Syria.

After four punishing journeys through the Middle East, Mr. Baker has gathered polite expressions of encouragement from the area's long-warring nations, but no substantive concessions.

Israel and its Arab neighbors remain far apart on the substance of most peace proposals: the idea that Israel should withdraw from much of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, Arab territories it conquered in 1967, in exchange for genuine peace with Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker hoped to make progress on that question by convening a peace conference under U.S. and Soviet sponsorship.

Syria wants the conference to be held under U.N. auspices, primarily because the U.N. Security Council has repeatedly called for Israeli withdrawal from the territories. Syria also wants the conference to remain in session as long as possible.

Israel wants the United Nations' role restricted and wants a conference that would meet only once.

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