Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in a disclosure that shocked some of his closest aides, has publicly acknowledged for the first time that his government unsuccessfully conducted negotiations with Jordan's King Hussein on the future of the occupied West Bank.
The disclosure of talks between former foreign minister Moshe Dayan and King Hussein seemed certain to embarrass Hussein in the Arab world less than two weeks before his visit to the United States, scheduled for June 17-18. The king has never acknowledged that he met with any Israeli officials, much less representatives of Begin's rightist Likud government.
Sources close to Begin said the prime minister clearly was seeking to undermine opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres' contention that if Peres were elected prime minister he could successfully negotiate a territorial compromise with Jordan and bring peace to the Middle East.
Begin has shown signs of increasing combativeness in recent weeks, since his feud with then-defense minister Ezer Weizman led to Weizman's resignation. Begin's attempt to undercut Peres' professed aspirations of finding a solution to the West Bank dilemma that has eluded the Likud government appeared to be something of an opening salvo in the 1981 parliamentary election campaign.
Peres today told a meeting of his party's central committee that Begin's disclosure was "irresponsible" and "without precedent" in diplomacy.
Every government in Israel's 32-year history, which until Begin's election in 1977 were all controlled by the Labor Party, has held secret meetings with Arab leaders, Peres said. No Israeli prime minister has ever acknowledged press reports of such meetings, he added.
As a result of Begin's statement, Peres said, no Arab leader can be expected to trust Israel to maintain secrecy about such private meetings.
Peres said he still believes a "Jordanian solution" stands a better chance based on territorial compromise than on Begin's autonomy scheme.
Speaking with a group of visiting American editors yesterday, Begin said Dayan was the latest Israeli envoy to approach Hussein. An account of Begin's disclosure appeared in the Atlanta Constitution today, but the prime minister's office denied the newspaper's assertion that Dayan told Hussein Israel was prepared to negotiate a territorial compromise.
[The Atlanta Constitution, in its account of Begin's remarks said that an aide to the prime minister asked in Hebrew if he should be disclosing the talks with Hussein. Begin waved him aside and went on, the Constitution reported.]
Although the prime minister's office denied it, there have been persistent reports that Dayan had asked Begin what he should do if Hussein offered a territorial compromise in the West Bank, and that Begin is said to have replied that if Hussein did that, Begin was prepared to negotiate.
In the meeting with Hussein, Dayan is reported to have hinted to the king that if he offered a territorial compromise, Israel would negotiate. Hussein is said to have rejected the hint.
Begin told the editors yesterday that leaders of previous Labor Party governments, Including Abba Eban, Yigael Allon, Yitzhak Rabin and Dayan had met with Hussein on neutral territory and offered territorial compromise, but that Hussein rejected the offers.
Begin's disclosure seemed not as significant as his motive. It is widely assumed that Hussein insisted on absolute secrecy from Israel before agreeing to the meetings, since the king stood to lose considerable prestige in the Arab world by even talking with the Israelis.
In an interview with the Washington Post on April 24, Hussein dismissed as "naive" the notion that he would negotiate" the notion that he with Israel before Israeli forces have completly withdrawn from the West Bank, Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Sharaf, also in an interview, vehemently denied that Israel and Jordan had been in contact.
Peres has recently stepped up his campaign for negotiations with Jordan in anticipation of the 1981 elections, noting that in July 1978 Hussein tried to initiate a meeting with Peres in Austria, but that it never was held because Begin objected. By revealing the Likud government's failed diplomatic efforts, sources said, Begin was demonstrating that Peres' optimism about a diplomatic initiative was illfounded.