'US Secretary of State James Baker arrives in Israel this afternoon to receive Israel's response on the peace conference. Or so he hopes."That was how state-run Israel Radio underscored the continued uncertainty here over the government's position as Mr. Baker began a sixth visit to the region yesterday. The high-stakes Baker visit came fresh on the heels of President Bush's statement in Moscow Wednesday that he and his Soviet hosts hoped to issue invitations to a Middle East peace conference penciled in for October. But was Bush being overly optimistic?
No East Jerusalemites The hard-line government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir still showed no sign of dropping its opposition to including residents of Arab East Jerusalem in any Palestinian negotiating team, the single largest hurdle standing in the way of peace talks. Israel conquered and subsequently annexed the eastern sector of the city during the Six Day War in 1967. Palestinians seek to make it the capital of a future Palestinian state. "We will not be attending any peace conference with Arab residents of East Jerusalem," reaffirmed Yossi Olmert, director of Israel's government press office, when asked if Mr. Shamir finally was prepared to say "yes" to US calls to join willing Arab states in Middle East peace talks. Shortly before the secretary arrived, it appeared likely that Shamir would offer Baker a "yes, but response - agreeing in principle to attend a conference but with assurances from the United States that Israel would not be forced to sit down with any Palestinians it deemed unacceptable. In addition to East Jerusalem residents, Israel also seeks to exclude anyone linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinians living outside of the occupied territories, or diaspora. Israel Radio reported that Shamir and two senior members of his government - Defense Minister Moshe Arens and Foreign Minister David Levy - were prepared to offer Baker a "compromise" on Palestinian participation. It would permit a Jerusalem-born member among the Jordanians in a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, but not a current resident of the city. East Jerusalem resident Hanan Ashrawi, a leading PLO supporter in the territories who most likely will be among the Palestinians to meet with Baker today, said the reported Israeli concession was nothing of the kind. "We don't see that as a compromise. Only the Palestinians can choose their representatives," she said. Asked whether she thought the peace process was heading nowhere, Ms. Ashrawi said: "It depends on whether the US is ready to take a firm hand with Israel or will let them continue to call the shots." Baker's latest visit also renewed calls within the Israeli right wing for their standard-bearer Shamir to stand firm and reject the American land-for-peace formula. "We are not happy with the conference at all," says Minister-Without-Portfolio Rehavam Ze'evi, whose two-member Moledet Party advocates the expulsion of the 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to other Arab countries. "I believe and hope that Prime Minister Shamir will know how to stand by our struggle for the wholeness of the land of Israel."
Threats to coalition Shamir's government controls 66 of 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, making it vulnerable to small parties' threats to resign, thus bringing down the goverment. Opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres said the Labor Party would support the ruling Likud-led government in Parliament if the small but mighty parties made good on threats to resign from the coalition. He urged Shamir to stop waffling and to enter the peace process without preconditions.