The White House yesterday claimed "considerable progress" toward persuading the Soviet Union to accept a united Germany within NATO as President Bush and East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere held talks on German unification.

De Maiziere's visit to the White House, the first and probably last by an East German prime minister, was devoted mostly to unification issues, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said. He said the two leaders agreed that a united Germany should be free to choose its own alliance and endorsed "the continuing vital role of the alliance and of U.S. forces stationed in Europe as guarantors of stability and security."

Bush, in meetings with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, has insisted that full German membership in the Western military alliance will not threaten the Soviet Union and will provide stability to a Europe wary of a united Germany. Bush and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who met at the White House Friday night, reiterated that position then.

Gorbachev said during his recent summit with Bush that the Soviets will not accept German membership in NATO, arguing that NATO was formed to combat the Soviet Union. He has proposed a variety of alternatives, but the Bush administration has rejected any formulation that does not put Germany within NATO.

Fitzwater said yesterday that "we feel considerable progress has been made" since the summit in persuading Gorbachev to accept the role of Germany in NATO. "I can't report any conclusion to the matter, but we do feel progress is being made," he said.

He said this assessment was subjective and was based on Bush's meetings with de Maiziere and Kohl, meetings Secretary of State James A. Baker III had last week with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and discussions other alliance leaders have had with Gorbachev since the summit.

An official described de Maiziere's meeting with Bush as "important in the symbolism" as much as in the substance of political changes in Europe.

The Germans are scheduled to vote on a parliament as early as January, which would effectively end the division of the country following World War II, in which case the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) will cease to exist as a separate country.

The two leaders met in the Oval Office for private talks after Bush took de Maiziere to the Rose Garden to face rows of cameramen and photographers for the routine photo opportunity.

The president took de Maiziere to the family quarters for lunch before the leader departed for speeches and meetings here and in New York before returning to East Berlin.