MOSCOW, SEPT. 4 -- The Kremlin called today for fresh United Nations efforts to resolve the crisis in the Persian Gulf, including the rapid convening of a Middle East peace conference to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The calls by ranking Soviet officials for a diplomatic solution to the crisis came five days before a U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Helsinki and appeared designed to preserve Soviet influence in the Arab world while reiterating Moscow's strong condemnation of Iraq for the invasion of Kuwait.
In a speech in the Soviet Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze predicted that the Helsinki meeting between Presidents Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev would mark a "major milestone on the road toward resolving the crisis in the Persian Gulf." He said the world faced a "highly critical, emergency situation that had made necessary extraordinary action in the form of a special meeting between the Soviet and U.S. presidents."
Shevardnadze stopped short of directly linking a solution of the gulf crisis to the tackling of broader Middle East issues, including self-determination for the Palestinians and Syria's occupation of Lebanon. An attempt by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to tie the fate of Kuwait to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict has already been rejected by the United States and other Western countries.
But by speaking of a set of "highly complex, interlocking problems" in the Middle East and reviving a longstanding Soviet proposal for a U.N.-sponsored peace conference, Shevardnadze was in effect taking a symbolic step in Baghdad's direction. He was also staking out an independent Soviet position in a potential diplomatic marathon as international pressure builds on Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
"Unless peace comes to the Middle East, we shall continue to pay a huge price for its wars," said Shevardnadze, who will accompany Gorbachev to Helsinki. "It is time that we acted now in the interests of the world."
In Washington, Secretary of State James A. Baker III also raised a vague connection between the crisis in the Persian Gulf and a settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Without referring to the Sheverdnadze speech, Baker told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that "resolution of today's threat . . . can become a springboard for revived efforts to resolve the conflicts" that fuel regional arms races, "including the festering conflict between Israel and its Palestinian and Arab neighbors."
Shevardnadze hinted that Moscow would consider establishing diplomatic relations with Israel -- broken off after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war -- if the Israelis agreed to the convening of a Middle East peace conference. He said any Israeli move would meet with a response by Moscow, including "a fresh look at the issue of Soviet-Israeli relations."
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reiterated his government's opposition to a Middle East peace conference, saying, "We have our position about an international conference around the solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. We will not participate in such an international conference."
In a separate briefing in Moscow, presidential press spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko said Gorbachev was ready to discuss in Helsinki "ways of stepping up further U.N. activity aimed at unblocking the crisis in the Persian Gulf." The Soviet Union has already supported five Security Council resolutions condemning Baghdad's invasion of Kuwait and enforcing an economic blockade of Iraq.
Ignatenko said Gorbachev would fly to Helsinki Saturday evening and meet with Finnish President Mauno Koivisto prior to a full day of talks with Bush on Sunday. He said Gorbachev and Bush would hold a joint news conference Sunday evening, following a precedent set in Malta last December and Washington in June.
Apparently setting the stage for the line that Gorbachev is likely to pursue in Helsinki, Shevardnadze praised the "unanimity and firmness" with which the international community had responded to Iraqi "aggression" against Kuwait. He added, however, that it was "essential to pursue our objective through non-military means and in a way that would remove the military presence of other countries."
Western and Arab diplomats here expect that Gorbachev could press Bush for guarantees that the United States will withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia once the crisis is over. Soviet military commanders have expressed concern that the U.S. military buildup in the gulf could disrupt the East-West strategic balance.
Shevardnadze said the Soviet Union would not "acquiesce in any option that would fall short of restoring the sovereignty, territorial integrity and legitimate government of Kuwait." He said that one possible solution to the crisis would be for Iraqi troops in Kuwait to be replaced by a U.N. peace-keeping force, with an inter-Arab contingent replacing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.
Arab diplomats here said the proposal for a reciprocal withdrawal of Iraqi and U.S. forces had originally been broached by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.