Mideast delegates, Baker talk Secretary's contacts come as round nears inconclusive end


WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III began a round of consultations with top Middle East negotiators last night as the end of the current round of peace talks neared without substantive gains.

It was the first time Mr. Baker had met with the negotiators since the talks got under way in Washington in December.

U.S. officials said that each of the delegations had asked to see the secretary but insisted that they had not decided together to get him to intervene.

Mr. Baker met with the heads of the Syrian and Lebanese delegations last night and arranged to meet this morning with the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians.

"They wanted the opportunity to talk. Everyone was interested in seeing him while they were in town," a U.S. official said, stressing that there was "no special urgency" to the sessions.

It was assumed that Mr. Baker would discuss where future talks are to be held and make a pitch that the process continue to move forward.

Israeli negotiators, under mounting right-wing pressure at home, had earlier stuck publicly to plans to return home tonight with little likelihood of serious negotiations beforehand on Palestinian self-government.

They say they are sticking with the original timetable calling for this third round of talks to begin Jan. 7 and end Jan. 15. The round was delayed until Monday by Arab anger over the planned Israeli expulsion of 12 Palestinians.

"We are scheduled to leave tomorrow night," negotiator Yossi Ben-Aharon told reporters yesterday, rejecting Arab criticism that Israel was not negotiating seriously.

The Israeli departure would leave the breaking of a procedural impasse and some progress between Israel and Jordan as the only major gains from the three-day session.

While Mr. Ben-Aharon's answer left open a possible change, the domestic political climate surrounding negotiations deteriorated yesterday with a terrorist attack on Israeli West Bank settlers that officials said left seven people injured, some seriously. In the ambush, gunmen fired on an Israeli bus and a car driving through the West Bank near Ramallah, north of Jerusalem. None the wounded, who included a young boy, were said to be in life-threatening condition.

Should the talks break off today, it is uncertain when they would be resumed, or where. Israel wants to shift them to the Middle East, a plan all the Arabs oppose, at least for now.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir came under added right-wing pressure not to make any negotiating concessions to Palestinians.

Leaders of two far-right parties, Moledet and Tehiya, vowed to bolt his fragile coalition if negotiators offered Palestinians a self-government plan.

Limited autonomy forms the heart of Israel's peacemaking plan, and Israeli officials have been preparing to offer such a proposal for weeks. But the new threat appeared to diminish chances that it could safely be offered in the current climate.

Mr. Ben-Aharon reaffirmed that Israel would offer such a plan, called interim self-government arrangements, but he declined to predict whenthat would be.

"The first step was to set down an agenda which encompassed the various elements . . . and subsequently the proposal itself will be raised at the appropriate time," he said.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi insisted that before serious progress could be made on self-rule, Israel would have to halt settlement activity. The Israeli government is moving in the opposite direction.

Some Mideast analysts express doubt that Mr. Shamir can offer any serious concessions to Palestinians while still trying to keep his coalition together but say he will have to play to Israeli moderates after calling elections.

His government's current posture threatens a clash with the Bush administration, which is considering Israel's request for $10 billion in housing loan guarantees.

While the administration wants to avoid an election-year fight with Israel or Congress, officials say that it will demand conditions even stronger than those proposed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of a key appropriations panel.

Mr. Leahy has suggested reducing the amount of money Israel could draw by the amount it spends on settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

If any real progress was made yesterday, it occurred between Israel and Jordan, the Arab neighbor with which Israel has had unofficial contacts for years.

The current round of negotiations brought the first bilateral talks between Jordan and Israel on a peace treaty. Jordan's spokesman said the kingdom's vision of peace includes "full cooperation," including diplomatic relations with Israel.

But talks with Jordan were played down by the Israelis, apparently because they marked a clear separation of Jordanian and Palestinian negotiating teams and the implicit acceptance of a Palestinian people.

Little progress was reported on Syrian and Lebanese fronts, with Israelis complaining that Syria remained unwilling to accept Israel's right to exist.

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