AS United States Secretary of State James Baker III begins an intense day of talks here this morning, he will have to thread his way toward a peace process between the high hopes of the Palestinians and the wariness evident among Israeli officials. While Palestinian leaders say they expect the US envoy to put pressure on Israel, especially to stop building Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, senior figures in Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government are deeply opposed to the whole concept of "territory for peace" behind President Bush's current initiative.
Both sides, however, anticipate that Mr. Baker will offer some concrete ideas after having pondered the views he heard during his last Middle East trip three weeks ago.
Having apparently won general approval on that trip for a "twin track" approach that would deal simultaneously with the Palestinian question and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, the secretary of state is expected to suggest holding a regional conference at which both issues would be negotiated.
Mr. Shamir said on Sunday that he did not rule out such a meeting.
Israeli officials, however, say they would insist on ground rules for such a parley that would make it essentially a forum for bilateral negotiations with individual Arab states, not an international conference under United Nations or superpower auspices.
Beyond the details of how a peace conference might be convened, the question of what would be discussed there has sparked renewed debate in Israeli political circles, especially in the light of speculation that Baker might ask the government to reaffirm its commitment to UN Resolutions 242 and 338.
Those resolutions, calling on Israel to withdraw from occupied territory and guaranteeing its right to live in peace, are subject to many different interpretations in Israel. At Sunday's Cabinet meeting, for example, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon argued that since Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982 under the Camp David accord, it has fulfilled its UN obligations.
Health Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, without going so far, insisted that "land for peace" is not an accurate interpretation of Resolution 242. "We are prepared to negotiate on the basis of UN Resolutions 242 and 338," he said. "What is the proper interpretation of these resolutions is subject to negotiations."
The problem, says a Western diplomat, is that "you don't know what they mean when they reaffirm 242 and 338."
Although Shamir said over the weekend he had "no reason to fear" Baker's visit, and Israeli officials insist they do not expect the secretary of state to berate them, foreign diplomats say they are sure he will raise the issue of continuing Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Washington has denounced such settlement as an obstacle to peace, and the question has arisen with added urgency since Baker's last visit. Mr. Sharon has announced plans to build 13,000 new houses in the territories over the next two years, the State Department has published a detailed report on settlement activity, and US Ambassador to Israel William Brown has complained that Israel seeks to conceal the full extent of settlement.
"Settlements are an issue dear to Baker's heart, and one that the Palestinians stressed last time he was here," said a Western diplomat. "I'm sure he will raise it with Shamir."
For the Palestinians, a change in the government's attitude on settlements is key to any progress.
"The primary thing that has to happen is a freeze on settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank," insists Hana Siniora, editor of the Palestinian daily Al Fajr. "Anything without that is a waste of effort."
The Palestinian figures due to meet Baker this afternoon will also be pressing him to help alleviate political conditions in the occupied territories.
"We will ask Baker where is the American credibility of which he spoke, and where are the confidence building measures he talked about at our last meeting," Palestinian delegation leader Faisal Husseini said on Sunday. "In the meantime, Israel has deported four Palestinians, expropriated [4,250 acres] of land, expanded settlements, and filled jails with more prisoners."
"If this peace process is on two levels, Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian, it seems that Baker can deliver the Arabs," said Siniora. "The question we Palestinians are asking is: Can he deliver Israel?"
At press time, local Palestinian leaders were still discussing among themselves and with officials at the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Tunisia who should attend the meeting and whether to broaden the group of 10 who met Baker three weeks ago.
In the wake of Shamir's comment that Israel would not negotiate with any of those 10 because of their PLO links, "there is a feeling that we should show that all Palestinians think the same" by adding fresh faces to the team, Siniora said.