AS if United States Secretary of State James Baker III did not have enough trouble bridging the gap between Israel and the Arab states over his Middle East peace initiative, he found on his latest visit to Jerusalem that he still has to overcome differences among members of the Israeli Cabinet itself. The government here is in turmoil after it became clear that in his talks with Mr. Baker on Friday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had rejected a concession that his own foreign minister, David Levy, had made only a few hours earlier.
The lack of coherence within the government became plain when Defense Minister Moshe Arens denied Saturday that Israel had reached agreement with Baker on several aspects of the format of a peace conference, as Foreign Ministry officials had told reporters.
"From the point of view of reaching an Israeli position, in the end this must be agreed on with the prime minister, and as you know Baker's discussion with the prime minister did not finish and no conclusion was reached," Mr. Arens told Israel Radio.
Baker cut short his visit to Jerusalem on Friday evening to return to the US after his mother died.
Later, one of Mr. Shamir's top aides said the premier still insisted that any regional peace conference should be a one-time, largely ceremonial affair, before breaking into direct bilateral peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
That contradicted Mr. Levy's suggestion to Baker, according to Foreign Ministry officials, that Israel would "favorably consider" letting the conference reconvene from time to time, with Israel's prior approval, to hear reports on how those bilateral talks were proceeding.
Such a concession, minor though it was, might have helped Baker convince the Arab states, especially Syria, which are demanding that a full international conference be convened.
"It is not a secret now that there is a difference of opinion between Mr. Shamir and Mr. Levy," said Yossi Ahimeir, the head of the prime minister's office.
Meanwhile, a leader of one of the extreme right-wing parties in Shamir's ruling coalition has threatened to bring down the government if it makes any concessions over the nature of a peace conference.
Geula Cohen, deputy science minister and Knesset member from the Tehiya Party, said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post yesterday that she thought her party should leave the government "the very minute it becomes apparent we have agreed to anything more than a single-session regional conference, one that is purely ceremonial."
The row over whether or not Israel has agreed to a marginal concession over the format of the conference has obscured the fact that the US secretary of state left Jerusalem with no Israeli agreement on a role for the United Nations at the proposed conference or on the right of the Palestinians to choose their own delegation to such talks.
Israel has refused to countenance any role for the world body at the meeting, though Baker is understood to be suggesting that the UN be made an observer.
That proposal is a bid to bridge the gap with Syria, which has demanded an international conference under UN auspices to resolve the Middle East's problems.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara said after his talks with Baker last week that "the Syrian position vis-a-vis this point is very clear. The UN should play an important role in this conference. We are still discussing the nature of that role."
Damascus is anxious to secure a major role for the UN in order to ensure that Security Council resolutions calling on Israel to trade land for peace are enforced. Israel is opposed to a UN role for the very same reason.
Nor did Israeli officials give any indication to Baker they are ready to soften their stance against allowing Palestinians from East Jerusalem to participate in a Palestinian delegation to peace talks, which they say would imply East Jerusalem was part of the occupied territories. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it in the Six-Day War and regards it as an integral part of the country.
The Palestinians insist they must be allowed to choose their own delegates, regardless of where they come from.
Baker's displeasure with the results of his latest visit here was clear in a statement he issued after leaving Jerusalem that "we still need some answers from the Israeli government, relating primarily to modalities, before we can move this process forward." He made no reference to any answers he expects from Arab governments.
If progress seemed hard to come by for the secretary of state after 30 days of traveling around the Middle East in the past seven weeks, he returned home from this trip with one small consolation.
In talks with Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, Baker persuaded Moscow to cosponsor the peace conference, should it get off the ground.
That indicates that the Soviets are prepared to upgrade their diplomatic ties with Israel to full ambassadorial level, a move Mr. Bessmertnykh said still depended on progress toward a Middle East settlement. "If the tendency toward the start of a settlement is getting closer, I don't think that will be a problem," he said.