AS United States Secretary of State James Baker III left Israel for Syria Wednesday on the last leg of his Middle East trip, Israelis were left to ponder prospects for peace his recent visit posed. Israeli officials said little about Mr. Baker's visit, in which he and Israeli leaders discussed the Arab-Israeli dispute and the Palestinian question. Baker also met Tuesday with Palestinian nationalists from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The meeting with the Palestinian leaders was unprecedented. Never before has a US secretary of state held talks in Jerusalem with Palestinian leaders. Nor could Baker have come much closer to talking to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), with which Washington has had no contacts since suspending dialogue last summer.
The Palestinians emerged from their meeting with Baker expressing guarded satisfaction and a view that the US was concerned about their plight.
``We got the impression that Secretary Baker and the administration are serious about pursuing this,'' said Hanan Ashrawi, a professor of English literature at Bir Zeit University.
Israeli leaders were tightlipped, but positive. Avi Pazner, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's chief spokesman, said talks with Mr. Shamir, Foreign Minister David Levy, and Defense Minister Moshe Arens were ``friendly.'' There was basic agreement, he said, on the need for a ``two-pronged approach'' to a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
``Relations between Israel and the Arab countries, on the one hand, and the Palestinian problem on the other,'' Mr. Pazner said, ``should be discussed in parallel.''
Mr. Levy appeared to react with some optimism to news that Arab countries were showing what Baker called ``a willingness to consider new approaches.''
``What we have heard ... certainly shows encouraging signs which we did not see until now,'' Levy told reporters. Baker, for his part, indicated he was looking for reciprocal signs from Israel.
``Whether [the new Arab thinking] ripens ... into specific, concrete commitments will depend in large part upon whether or not there is a similar attitude coming from the other side of the equation,'' he said.
Israeli officials strongly indicated that implementation of United Nations resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict - a point in President Bush's speech to the US Congress last week - did not necessarily point the way forward.
``To focus on the UN resolutions can lead only to failure,'' Yossi Ben Aharon, director-general of the prime minister's office, told Israel Radio. Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested Israel had complied with UN Resolution 242 by withdrawing from the Sinai region.
The day before Baker's arrival, the Israeli government reconfirmed its commitment to its May 1989 peace initiative, which calls for elections in the occupied territories, leading to limited Palestinian self-rule. The plan rules out independence and a PLO role.
The PLO, however, wants its voice to be heard. Reuters reported that a senior PLO official had said he would announce concessions to Israel aimed at starting negotiations for establishing a Palestinian state and that Israel had rejected the idea. Britain's Sky News quoted Bassam Abu Sharif, PLO leader Yasser Arafat's political adviser, as saying he would unveil the concessions at a London news conference today.
Sky News was reported saying the plan's main points included dropping a PLO demand that it be an equal partner in talks with Israel. It would instead nominate Palestinians who were not PLO members to negotiate.
Palestinian leaders who met Baker in Jerusalem said he described the US-PLO talks, broken off last year, as ``suspended, not terminated,'' Reuters also reported. But a senior US official with Baker said conditions for resuming a dialogue would be more difficult because of PLO support for Iraq.
The 10-person Palestinian delegation, which included several pro-PLO figures, stressed that the meeting with Baker could not have taken place without the PLO's blessing.
``The group of Palestinians who came today came under the direct order of the PLO,'' said Sa'eb Erekat, a lecturer in political science at a West Bank university.
Asked about an earlier remark, in which Baker had described the US-PLO dialogue as ``terminated,'' the Palestinians were apparently reassured that this was a slip of the tongue.
``We asked him this question and we are happy to say that he said `no','' said Faisal Husseini, the leading member of the delegation. ``The talks with the PLO are only suspended, not ended.'' Earlier, in Cairo, Baker said that the PLO knew what it must do to restore dialogue.
At the end of the meeting with Baker, Mr. Husseini said he thought the US may be willing to exert pressure toward a solution.
``I can say from my own feelings that this time he will not just give them a phone number and say, `When you are ready, call me,''' he said, referring to Baker's appeal to the Israeli government last year to call the White House when it wanted to talk peace. ``I believe ... that he will insist that something must start.''