WASHINGTON -- Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens said yesterday that Israel has agreed "in principle" to attend a Middle East peace conference and that announcement of the decision is "no more than a formality."
Following understandings reached with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who visited Jerusalem last week, Israel has overcome its reservations about attending peace talks sponsored jointly by the United States and the Soviet Union, Mr. Arens said in an interview on ABC-TV's "This Week with David Brinkley."
"Based on agreements that we reached during Secretary Baker's visit here, in principle the answer is positive," Mr. Arens said, adding that an official announcement of Israel's decision is forthcoming.
At Andrews Air Force Base, where he was playing golf, President
Bush cautioned that he had not heard from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
"I heard that Arens was very upbeat, and we view that as positive, but there has been no official word from Mr. Shamir yet. It's in their interests to go to this conference," said Mr. Bush.
Mr. Baker received Arab approval for his peace proposals earlier this month, and Israel has been under mounting U.S. pressure to accept the formula worked out by the secretary in time for Mr. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to make an announcement about the conference at their Moscow summit, which begins tomorrow.
But for Israel, the chief stumbling block has been the issue of Palestinian representation. Mr. Shamir has been refusing to attend the conference if it includes any Palestinians affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization or any Palestinians living either in exile or in East Jerusalem.
With Palestinians resisting this condition, it is not clear how an agreement can be worked out. However, Mr. Arens said Sunday: "We have reached agreement with the United States over the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and agreed that it should not include anybody from the PLO, nor a resident of Jerusalem."
A Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, Vitaly Churkin, said in an interview on CNN's "Newsmaker Sunday" that arrangements for a peace conference will be the first item on the agenda when Mr. Baker arrives in Moscow today.
The Palestinian issue is extremely sensitive because Israel will not negotiate with any Palestinian who acknowledges an affiliation with the PLO, yet no Palestinian is likely to take part in the negotiations without at least the tacit approval of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Describing Syria's decision to negotiate directly with Israel as a "very significant step forward," Mr. Arens adopted a conciliatory tone when asked about Mr. Shamir's often-stated refusal to consider giving up territory for peace.
"If everything was agreed to before negotiations, there would be no need for negotiations," Mr. Arens said, refusing to be drawn out on the question of what concessions Israel might in the end be willing to make in return for peace.
In related developments, Syrian President Hafez el Assad, in remarks published yesterday, said that "no peace can be established if one party continues to occupy another party's land." His remark referred to Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Also yesterday, Israel radio reported that Housing Minister Ariel Sharon had approved 380 housing units for Jewish settlers in the Golan Heights, despite repeated pleas from Washington to stop the construction.