AS Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir briefed his Cabinet colleagues yesterday on his talks with US Secretary of State James Baker III, Israel found itself under pressure to make concessions to keep the current US peace initiative alive. Mr. Baker, in Damascus today, was likely to cancel plans to shuttle back to Israel on Tuesday unless he received satisfactory answers from Jerusalem to questions he left with the Israeli prime minister, a US official said. That stance has angered officials here.
"Why the impatience?" one senior Israeli official asked rhetorically on Sunday. "Such impatience after less than a month, with nothing new from the Arab side, is not very helpful.
"The whole process is becoming distorted, as if Israel was the only player," the official complained. "It cannot continue that the whole process hinges on Israel."
Israeli fears of being blamed for any collapse of Baker's peace effort mounted after US officials said the Secretary of State had made very little progress in four hours of talks with Shamir on Friday.
In contrast to Israeli officials' dour silence after the visit, Palestinian leaders were notably upbeat.
Palestinians see progress
At a meeting three Palestinians held with Baker on Saturday, "we touched more the substance than the slogans," reported Palestinian delegation leader Faisal Husseini.
While earlier meetings with the US envoy had been taken up with "problems and obstacles, this time we saw a willingness to talk about how to overcome those problems and obstacles," Mr. Husseini said.
The key sticking points in Baker's current negotiations about how to get Middle East peace negotiations started are the questions as to who will represent the Palestinians, and how a peace conference would be structured.
The differences over technicalities and format, apparently minor points that have nothing to do with the substantive issues that have kept the Middle East at war for the past half century, in fact have political implications that go to the heart of the conflict, officials here say.
"There is the immediate and the long term," says one government official. "And each decision you make now on the immediate issues has its effect on everything that follows."
On the question of Palestinian representation, for example, the Israeli government insists not only that delegates declare they are not representing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) but also that none of them come from annexed Arab East Jerusalem.
The Israelis regard East Jerusalem not as occupied territory, but as part of Israel.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, regard East Jerusalem as part of the territories, whose future has yet to be decided.
Thus whether or not an East Jerusalemite is on the Palestinian delegation apparently signals a decision in advance on the status of East Jerusalem itself, one of the core problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Baker is understood to be seeking to postpone discussion of the substantive question by finessing the point - suggesting that a Palestinian with two addresses, one in Jerusalem and one outside, join the delegation. But when he proposed such an idea a year ago, Shamir rejected it.
Similarly, the technical nature of the peace conference that Baker is trying to convene will have far-reaching practical political ramifications.
Israel is ready to attend a regional conference on the understanding that after a ceremonial opening it dissolves into bilateral negotiations between Israel and each of her neighbors, including the Palestinians.
"And we thought that the Americans thought likewise," an Israeli official here said privately.
But after talks in Cairo and Damascus, Baker appears to have moved some way toward the Arab conception of a conference that would remain in session during the bilateral negotiations, and to which awkward issues could be referred back.
Israel, however, fears being outvoted in such a forum.
"The problem for us is how to ensure that you do not have an ongoing conference, and our objection to this is not going to change," the official said.
While the Israelis oppose the presence of any states from outside the region at the conference - except for the putative sponsors of the meeting, the United States and the Soviet Union - the Arabs are pressing for an international conference under United Nations auspices.
Baker is reportedly seeking to bridge these gaps with a formula that would keep the conference in session but prevent it from imposing anything on Israel against her will. He is also proposing that the European nations be somehow involved in the parley.
But in his talks with Shamir on Friday, he appears to have made little headway in convincing the Israeli prime minister to accept these ideas.
Shamir said he needed to consult his colleagues, and would respond to Baker in his own time, according to a US statement.
The US envoy does not, however, seem disposed to wait for very long, and Shamir's well-tried policy of playing for time may be approaching its limits.
Anxious to test Israel's readiness to negotiate, Baker is forcing Shamir to choose between jeopardizing Jerusalem's relations with Washington, as he did last year, and making concessions.