Bush sends letters to Mideast leaders in effort to salvage peace conference


WASHINGTON -- Struggling to bridge a gap between Israel and Syria on procedures for a peace conference, the United States has proposed allowing United Nations and European Community observers to participate and given Israel effective veto on reconvening the full conference.

The United States also has proposed that documents resulting from any negotiations be turned over to the United Nations, diplomatic sources said yesterday.

In an effort to restore momentum to the process, President Bush sent letters last weekend to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Syrian President Hafez el Assad, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

The letters "all expressed the president's personal commitment to the peace process, urged them to follow up on the various opportunities that have come out of the Baker mission, and once again stressed that we should not pass up this opportunity to keep the peace process alive and to get Israel talking to its neighbors," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.

A dispute over the United Nations' role in the peace conference and the opportunity to reconvene even after direct bilateral talks get under way is the only major obstacle to such a conference, Secretary of State James A. Baker III has said.

U.S. officials believe refusal so far to compromise masks a reluctance by Israel and Syria to commit themselves. Syria has sought a "significant" or "important" U.N. role, while Israel, citing what it calls the world body's anti-Israel bias, has opposed any U.N. involvement.

In recent testimony before Congress, Mr. Baker said the European Community should be able to participate and added, "it is our view that the United Nations should have some role."

He also said the conference should be able to reconvene "if all the parties agree, in order to hear reports from the bilateral and multilateral negotiating groups."

In another development, the White House and State Department welcomed yesterday a statement by Jordan's King Hussein indicating his willingness to meet face to face with Israeli officials. The king made the remark in an interview with a French magazine, Le Point.

"The main message of what King Hussein said is that taboos must disappear," said State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler. "We could not agree more with his statement."

The statement prompted Israeli foreign minister David Levy to promise that Israel would welcome the king to Jerusalem with a red carpet and a band. But Jordan later said the king was speaking about talks held in connection with a peace conference. Even with this qualification, Ms. Tutwiler described direct talks "as something very positive and that we would welcome."

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