ISRAEL'S four senior government leaders yesterday agreed to accept a United States plan designed to salvage a flagging Israeli initiative for Middle East peace talks. The conditions attached to Israel's approval could yet block progress toward the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue needed to get a serious peace process started, many diplomatic analysts fear.
Sunday's meeting of the ``Group of Four'' Cabinet ministers ended weeks of internal debate over whether to embrace the proposal of Secretary of State James Baker III designed to bridge differences between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. But the approval of the four - Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens of the Likud Party, and Finance and Defense Ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin of Labor - also included conditions that, if accepted by the US, could pose serious problems for the PLO. At press time, the details of the conditions were unknown. The decision of the ``Group of Four'' was expected to be ratified yesterday over the objections of three right-wing Likud critics who argue that the Baker points will force Israel into talks with the PLO.
Israel's May 14 peace plan calls for elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip leading to negotiations over the future status of the territories. So far weeks of diplomatic maneuvering have failed to produce a way around the two main obstacles to getting an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue started. One is the PLO's insistence on an indirect role in choosing the Palestinian delegation, which Israel opposes. The other is Israel's insistence on limiting the agenda to a discussion of the ground rules for West Bank and Gaza elections, which the PLO opposes.
The PLO has kept the door ajar to acceptance of the Baker points. The Tunis-based organization says it has the right to pick the delegation, while according to the Baker ``understandings,'' the delegation must be acceptable to Israel, giving Israel implicit veto rights. To keep the PLO in the game, the US will be under pressure to provide assurances regarding the agenda, the composition of the delegation, and the right of Palestinian residents of Arab East Jerusalem to vote in any future elections.
Israel's acceptance of the Baker conditions should open the way for a meeting with President Bush when Mr. Shamir visits Washington this month. It may also defuse tensions within Israel's governing coalition whose Labor Party members have recently downplayed threats to quit over Likud's alleged foot-dragging on the peace process.
``In the last year I can see only a positive move on the part of the national unity government,'' Mr. Rabin said in an interview Thursday. ``Therefore one has to be patient.''