Foreign Minister David Levy of Israel said Wednesday that a Middle East peace conference might take place within a matter of weeks. But only hours earlier he had reiterated Israel's view that the United Nations should not take part. During a visit to Paris for talks with French and other Western European officials, he told a local radio station that "I am sure that all sides know that this is a historic occasion that must be seized."
Asked if the peace conference being promoted by the United States could take place soon, Levy replied: "I believe the answer is yes. Perhaps within two, three or four weeks. I cannot say, but certainly soon, I'm sure of that."
In Washington, Reuters quoted White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater as saying that there was no sign that enough progress had been made to hold a Middle East peace conference within weeks.
"If you're just talking about time and schedules, certainly," he said. "If that is an assessment, however, of everybody agreeing to the talks and a consensus to have them, that's a different question and I'd say we don't have the evidence to support that at this point."
The Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa, said Wednesday in Cairo that Egypt and Syria agreed on the need to hold a Middle East peace conference as soon as possible, Reuters reported.
Levy said Tuesday night after a meeting with the French foreign minister, Roland Dumas, that Israel wanted bilateral talks with Arab countries, with the role of the United Nations in the peace process limited to being informed by the parties once they have settled their differences.
In recent meetings with Secretary of State James Baker, Syrian officials have insisted on U.N. participation in the peace conference.
While Israel merely wants the conference to begin a series of two-way negotiations, Syria has also argued that it should have broader authority.
In his radio interview Wednesday, Levy refused to speculate on how Israel and Syria might settle those differences.
Asked about Palestinian representation in the conference, he said, "You are now entering into the kind of details that can endanger the current move towards the holding of this conference."
Earlier he was quoted as saying that Israel now accepted that the European Community could take part in a peace conference alongside the United States and the Soviet Union.
During the Persian Gulf war, Tel Aviv's relations with several Western European governments were strained by Israel's anger that they had sold Iraq sophisticated weapons and technology for developing chemical weapons.