Disclosure of secret meetings between opposition Labor Party Leader Shimon Peres and Morocco's King Hassan II and Prince Mohammed, brother of Jordan's king Hussein, has evolved into a bitter election campaign issue amidst charges that Peres has engaged in illegal peace neogotiations without approval of the Israeli government.
In a news conference in Tel Aviv today, Peres refused to either confirm or deny reports on Israel television that he met Jordan's Prince Mohammed on Tuesday in a London apartment, and then traveled to Rabat for a meeting Wednesday with King Hussan to discuss implementation of the Camp David peace agreement in the event the Labor Party is returned to power in Israel's June 30 general election.
The governments of both Morocco and Jordan denied that the meetings took place, and Peres said he had no intention of confirming the reports in light of those denials. Labor Party sources, while privately confirming the meetings occurred, said that Peres had given his word to Hassan and Hussein not to discuss them.
In his press conference, Peres refused to be drawn into a discussion about the reported meetings, but he denied as a "fabrication" an Israel television reporter's account of the purported contents of the talks. He asked how Israel television could know such details if there were "only four eyes" at the meetings.
The television report said that Peres had received the impression from King Hussein's brother that Jordan will not disucss the Labor Party's proposal of territoral compromise in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip out of hand, and that Peres told Hassan that a Labor government would try to reach a compromise on the status of East Jerusalem, which was annexted by Israel in 1967.
The reported Jordanian willingness to consider the Labor Party's proposed "Jordanian option" for a settlement of the West Bank issue is in direct conflict with numerous statements by King Hussein that he would not consider such a proposal until Israel withdraws from the occupied territories.
Officials of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's ruling Likud government seized upon the disclosure as a campaign issue, calling the meetings "scandalous" and charging that they undermined the government's bargaining position.
Justice Minister Moshe Nissim called the meetings illegal, and said they would be considerred "unthinkable" in any country with a tradition of loyal opposition. However, he said no legal steps were being contemplated against Peres.
In fact, Israeli public figures, both in and out of government, have held secret discussions with Arab leaders for years, with the explicit understanding that they would never be publicly acknowledged. Most recently, members of parliament Charlie Biton and Tewfik Toubi met with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in a controversial gathering last year.
Former foreign minister Moshe Dyan has met with King Hassan and other similar Israeli-Arab meetings date back to the origins of the Israeli state, when the late Golda Meir met with Hussein's grandfather, King Abdullah of Jordan.
Although Peres refused actually to confirm that it had taken place, he did indicate that Begin had been informed beforehand of the Hassan meeting, and he accused the Likud of intentionally leaking the story in an attempt to portray the Labor leader as a candidate of the West Bank. He called the disclosure by state-controlled Israel television a "low point in the campaign."