MOSCOW — Israel failed again Tuesday to give President Bush an unambiguous "yes" to his proposal for a Middle East peace conference, apparently dashing Bush's hopes for a dramatic joint announcement with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III telephoned Jerusalem twice from the Soviet capital to try to cajole an acceptance out of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
And Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh attempted to add his government's weight to the effort, suggesting pointedly that the Soviet Union will resume full diplomatic relations with Israel much sooner if a peace conference is convened.
"It will go along with the progress on the peace conference business," he said.
But by the end of the day, no headway had been made, a U.S. official said.
Shamir's adamant stand left some American officials bristling, in part because it put Bush in an awkward position: White House aides had said openly that the President hoped to pull off the diplomatic coup of a joint call to peace talks arm-in-arm with Gorbachev.
And on Monday, Bessmertnykh had given still higher prominence to the issue by suggesting that he and Baker conduct an unprecedented joint peace mission to the Middle East.
On Tuesday, U.S. officials indicated that they had quietly turned aside Bessmertnykh's suggestion. But when Bush and Gorbachev meet to discuss the Middle East today, they will face an awkward and now highly visible fact: a peace process that appears as stymied as ever.
One U.S. official at the summit noted that the Soviet Union helped persuade its principal Middle Eastern ally, Syria, to endorse the peace talks, but the United States has failed to persuade its closest ally, Israel.
"They've done their heavy lifting," the official said of the Soviets. "As far as pulling Israel across the line, it's up to us. . . . The (countries) they have influence over, we've heard from. The ones we have influence over, we haven't heard from."
Over the last two weeks, the United States and Israel have been engaged in what one Israeli official called a game of "diplomatic chicken."
The United States has asked that Israel agree to the peace conference without specific guarantees on who would represent the Palestinians at the talks--and used Bush's desire to make a splash at the summit to turn up the pressure for a quick answer.
Israel said it wanted the guarantees first; and Shamir, no stranger to high-pressure contests, has proven willing to sit tight.
"For the Americans, it's important to have everyone on board right away--momentum is their concern," a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem said.
"For us, it's having certain issues agreed in advance," the official added. "We want to see everything in a box. We think there is only 5% that still needs to be agreed upon, but we need that agreement."
It remained unclear whether Baker would head for Jerusalem at the end of the Moscow summit meeting to press the issue further. U.S. officials said no decision would be made on Baker's travel plans before today.
Israeli officials said Baker telephoned Shamir on Tuesday to discuss whether he should come to Israel. A senior U.S. official said Baker sought "a 'yes' in principle to the Bush proposal" but didn't get it.
A senior Israeli official said Baker had dropped the idea of issuing invitations to the conference while in Moscow.
"That's been shelved," he said confidently.
U.S. officials declined to comment directly, but one senior official sounded skeptical.
Members of the Shamir government had been worried that Bush and Gorbachev would invite Arabs and Israelis alike to a conference without giving Israel guarantees about the makeup of the Palestinian delegation and its role in the talks. Their concern increased after U.S. officials in Moscow suggested that Baker might take Israel's agreement to the idea of talks as a firm commitment to attend.
Among the Shamir government's demands, Israeli officials said, are a list of Palestinian participants, a veto over those names, a ban on the display of the Palestinian flag at the meeting and a commitment that once the conference starts, the Palestinians would not declare themselves representatives or adherents to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israel wants to exclude the PLO from talks and to strike from the agenda any reference to the future of Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. In order to symbolically exclude Jerusalem, Israel also seeks to ban any Arab resident of the city from attending. Israel has also proposed that Jordanians do the talking for the Palestinians, a condition meant to imply that the Palestinians have no claim to an independent state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Neither the PLO nor its affiliates in the West Bank and Gaza has endorsed participation in the conference.
Israel is keen to put the blame for any holdup on the Palestinians.
"If there's a problem, it's not between us and the Americans," the senior Israeli official said. "It's between the Americans and the Palestinians."
McManus reported from Moscow and Williams from Jerusalem.