WASHINGTON — The United States will stop its efforts to set up Mideast peace talks unless Israel agrees to proceed without delay, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said today.
"The phone number (for the White House switchboard) is 202-456-1414. When you're serious about this, call us," Baker said in comments directed to the Israeli government.
Baker, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the new government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to accept the U.S. plan for talks with Palestinians. Those talks could lead to elections among the 1.7 million Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
If the new government, which includes some of Israel's most hawkish politicians, puts unacceptable conditions for Palestinian participation in the talks, "there won't be any dialogue, there won't be any peace," Baker said.
The United States cannot get the talks going unless Israel shows willingness, he said.
Baker's comments are expected to exacerbate tensions with the Israeli government, which already has embarked on a collision course with Washington by pledging to spend more on Jewish settlements in the occupied lands and by refusing to promise to refrain from settling Soviet Jews there.
That issue will be raised in the next few weeks when the United States begins discussions with Israel about implementing a bill granting the Israelis $400 million in housing guarantees for the influx of Soviet Jews.
Baker said he did not know what assurances the Bush Administration would seek, except for the standard pledge to use U.S. money only in the lands it held before the 1967 Mideast War.
The United States does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over land seized during the war.
In February, Baker said, it appeared that 11 months of U.S. mediation were about to bear fruit with a historic Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
But Israel's coalition government refused to take the final step of accepting the formula for composition of the Palestinian delegation, leading to the March 15 collapse of the government.
Baker told the committee that he had asked Israel to accept a list of Palestinian delegates made up of residents from the occupied territories, as well as some who had been deported from the territories and Palestinians with addresses both in East Jerusalem and the territories.
The complicated formula was designed to appease Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, with which Israel refuses to negotiate.
"It's very hard for us to understand . . . why we didn't get a 'yes' answer," Baker said.
However, he said the Administration was willing to "let bygones be bygones."
"The challenge for all sides is to try to put (the peace process) back on track . . . and to see if we can't create a better environment for peacemaking," Baker said.
For Palestinians, he said, it means "looking beyond the tragic human losses that they have suffered and recommitting themselves to the political process."
Nearly 1,000 Palestinians have died in an uprising in the territories that began in December, 1987.