Prime Minister Shimon Peres received from the United States a proposed list of members of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation for peace negotiations with Israel today and promptly declared that the makeup of the delegation was unacceptable to Israel.
Peres made the comment in response to a question during a television interview as activity surrounding the Middle East peace process continued to pick up here. He gave no details about the composition of the proposed joint negotiating team, whose members have not been announced, nor did he specify Israel's objections to its makeup. [U.S. officials said in Washington that it was not immediately clear what effect Peres' rejection would have on U.S. consideration of the list, but they indicated that, as one said, "We don't want to get a delegation that results in Peres' demise" politically. ]State Department spokesman Robert Smalley reiterated past statements that it is U.S. policy "to consult closely with Israel" on the entire peace process.
[Another spokesman suggested it was "quite possible" there would be two Palestinian delegations, one for the preliminary talks with the United States and another to meet with Israelis in the actual negotiations. But he added that if Israeli opposition to the makeup of the delegation is going to "blow up" the peace process, "it's obviously not something we would want to do."]
Peres also repeated Israel's objections to any plan, now apparently backed by the Reagan administration, for an initial meeting between U.S. officials and the proposed joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation before direct negotiations with Israel.
"As you know, we are not supporting a previous meeting before [direct] negotiations will start with any Jordanian-Palestinian delegation," he told reporters outside the television studio after the interview.
Peres indicated that Israel's initial response would be low key, but he also made clear that the Israelis were not pleased by what they were told today.
Asked if the list was acceptable to Israel, Peres said "no." He added, "We're not at the stage where we must react. What we received today was information, but it's not a good opening step."
Peres' interview came 24 hours after he met with two leading Palestinian figures from the West Bank as the Israeli government began to refocus its attention away from its troubled economy and toward the Middle East peace process.
The three-hour meeting in Peres' home with Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij and Hikmat Masri, a prominent businessman and political leader from Nablus, involved "a very detailed exchange of views on where things stand in the peace process and the West Bank," according to a senior aide to the prime minister.
But the official said the makeup of the proposed joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation for peace talks with Israel was not discussed in any detail at the meeting.
Earlier today, the government's so-called "inner cabinet" of 10 senior ministers reviewed a list of potential Palestinian members of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Few details were available, but this was apparently not the same list of names given to Israel later today by the Reagan administration.
Israeli radio said the list of names reviewed today by the inner cabinet did not include any figures from the West Bank but was made up of members of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestine National Council, the PLO's so-called parliament in exile.
Israel has said it would never negotiate with the PLO or its members. The government here appears somewhat divided on the question of meeting with members of the PNC who are not also PLO leaders. The right-wing Likud bloc strongly opposes such a meeting while Peres and some other Labor Party leaders have taken a less definite stand.
Peres' meeting with Freij and Masri came against the backdrop of renewed activity here, in Amman and in Washington on the possibility of reviving Middle East peace negotiations.
The Reagan administration appears determined to go ahead, despite Israeli objections, with a meeting between a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy. A date has not been set, but it is expected to be this month or next in Amman.
A list of potential members of the joint delegation nominated by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan is now under review at the State Department. From this list, the United States is expected to decide who would make acceptable meeting partners and forward the names to Israel.
Israel insists only direct negotiations between it and the Arabs will lead to peace and contends that proposed preliminary meetings between U.S. officials and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation are a backdoor attempt to gain U.S. recognition of the PLO.
Reiterating that policy, Avi Pazner, chief spokesman of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said today, "Israel believes that the best way to proceed and further the peace process is direct negotiations between Israel and its neighbors.
"A U.S. meeting with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation will not further the peace process," he said. "What is needed is negotiations between Arabs and Israelis, not between Americans and Arabs."
Pazner also said that in any peace talks Israel "will not agree to the participation of anyone identified with the PLO," a category that Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and other Likud officials say includes all members of the PNC.
A senior aide to Peres said last night's meeting with Freij and Masri was arranged some time ago and was not connected with the stepped-up activity surrounding the composition of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation for peace negotiations. He described the atmosphere as "very good," and said the subject of a joint delegation for peace talks "came up in a general way" but was not the purpose of the meeting or its focus.
Freij and Masri are two of the most prominent Palestinian leaders in the West Bank who are considered moderates by Israel. They are both strong supporters of Hussein and have freqently been mentioned as potential members of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team who would probably be acceptable to Israel.
According to published accounts of last night's meeting, Freij and Masri said that now was the time to accelerate the Middle East peace process. They also discussed conditions and political attitudes in the West Bank, the reports said.
Peres was quoted as agreeing that a push should be made for renewing peace negotiations, but only in direct talks with Israel and without any role for the PLO.