AS United States Secretary of State James Baker III left here yesterday for Cairo, Israeli officials were congratulating themselves that the peace plan he is working on owes much to their initiatives. The idea of this regional peace conference, which Mr. Baker is to put to the Egyptians, Syrians, and Saudi Arabians this week, originated in Jerusalem two weeks ago, according to officials here, and was then presented to Washington.
This marks the second time the US administration has picked up an Israeli idea for the current peace process, diplomats point out. Jerusalem also has long advocated a ``twin track'' approach to resolving the Palestinian question only within the context of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict; that approach now forms the cornerstone of Baker's diplomatic efforts.
But how far the Israelis and Americans agree on the nature of the proposed regional conference is not clear, and each side gave a differing account on how much common ground they had cleared.
``We have removed the obstacles that existed,'' Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy announced after meeting Baker on Tuesday. ``This understanding [with the US] is the foundation for paving the way to peace.''
The US secretary of state, however, was more cautious, warning against any impression ``that something has been completely agreed to here, because that is not the case. There's a long, long way to go.
``There are many, many questions, many, many details that have to be looked at and ironed out,'' he told reporters.
Meanwhile, the six members of the Palestinian delegation that met Baker said they had been disappointed by his failure to help ease conditions for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. (See story, Page 3).
But they did not rule out the idea of a regional conference, saying they were ready to explore it and that the plan would need further study by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership in Tunis.
The Israeli view of how a regional peace conference might work is clear, according to officials here.
It would start with a ceremonial opening session, chaired jointly by the US and the Soviet Union, if Washington insists, provided Moscow opens full diplomatic relations with Israel.
The conference would then immediately break into a series of bilateral meetings between Israel and each Arab state to hammer out peace treaties.
There would be no plenary session to which unresolved questions could be referred back, because Israel fears being outvoted at such a plenary.
And whether the Palestinian question is dealt with at the conference or at a parallel meeting, Israel is adamant that Palestinian delegates should not be members of the PLO, nor should they come from the city of Jerusalem, all of which Israel regards as its own land rather than occupied territory.
Israeli leaders are more ambiguous about their understanding of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, which they do not want to interpret as ordering a ``land for peace'' deal such as Washington would like to see.
This was understood to have been one of the main points Baker raised yesterday in his second meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Despite Israeli statements that much had been agreed with Baker, a senior State Department official preferred to stress what remained to be decided, including the ``participants, format, character, timing, and location'' of any regional conference.
The six Palestinians who met Baker warned, in delegation leader Faisal Husseini's words, that ``there is a limit to going on talking about theoretical things or talking about practical things without having implementation in the field.''
On an issue especially wounding to them, that of Jewish settlement in occupied territory, the Palestinians ``asked if they [the US] were willing to prevail on Israel to stop it, and the answer was no,'' complained Haidal Abdul Shafei, head of the Palestinian Red Crescent.
Unless Israel relaxes its grip in the territories, the Palestinians warned in a memorandum they gave Baker, ``no Palestinian will be in a position to pursue political meetings or endeavors.''
Mr. Husseini also insisted that the PLO must be involved in any settlement. He responded to Israel's refusal to negotiate with PLO members with the argument that ``all of us are members of the PLO by birth,'' according to a source at the Baker meeting.
The issue appeared not to concern Baker, the source said.
``I think he is going to leave that question for the Israelis to finesse,'' added a Western diplomat. ``Shamir is going to have to decide how far he is going to look the other way,'' if Palestinian delegates can be persuaded not to present themselves openly as PLO representatives.
As Baker left Jerusalem for Cairo yesterday, word came that the Egyptians had rejected the idea of a regional conference, insisting that the meeting be held under wider international auspices.
``Obviously everything that makes the idea acceptable to us makes it unacceptable to the Arabs,'' pointed out an Israeli official. ``Baker will now have to see what he can sell to them, and then come back to us and suggest some cuts here, some cuts there. It will be the salami principle.''