Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has accepted two nominees -- the only ones living in Israeli-occupied territory -- to the proposed joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation for Middle East peace negotiations. But he continues to oppose any preliminary meetings between the delegates and U.S. officials that exclude Israel, senior Israeli officials said today.
Peres' aides also confirmed that Egypt had several times recently expressed its readiness to normalize its relations with Israel, a move that while as yet unconnected to the Jordanian-PLO peace initiative could, in the view of Israel, have a significant effect on the broader Middle East peace process. It would simultaneously place Egypt on good terms with Israel and Jordan and serve as an example to other Arab states.
Peres, attending an Egyptian National Day reception in Herzliya last night, told reporters that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in several recent messages had told him that he had decided to lift all restrictions on trade and tourism to Israel and would establish an Egyptian academic center in Israel similar to one Israel has in Egypt.
"It doesn't mean we've solved all the problems, but there's progress," Peres said.
Peres' acceptance of the two delegates was a reversal of a position he took Wednesday when he said he found the entire list unacceptable and characterized it as a "nonstarter." In a televised interview then, Peres said, "What I can say about the delegation is not only that I find the names unacceptable but also that I'm surprised at who's not on it."
"The fact that on the list are two individuals with no affiliation to the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] makes such individuals eligible for negotiations with Israel," one of Peres' top advisers said today.
He was referring to the only two residents of Israeli-occupied territories on a list of seven Palestinians submitted by Jordan's King Hussein to the Reagan administration after an initial PLO list of 15 names had been pared down by the Jordanians.
The two are Hanna Seniora, editor of the pro-PLO East Jerusalem daily Al Fajr, and Fayez Abu Rahme, a Palestinian nationalist who is chairman of the Gaza lawyers association.
Peres' senior adviser said today, however, that the prime minister now regards Seniora and Abu Rahme as "representative of legitimate Palestinian moderation." Peres reportedly said the same thing in briefing a closed-door meeting of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday.
Seniora, an East Jerusalem Christian, is regarded by Israeli authorities as an uncompromising Palestinian nationalist, although recently he has participated in a number of meetings with Israelis. While directing the editorial policy of the stridently nationalist Al Fajr, he spent time under "town arrest" and the newspaper frequently was closed or banned from circulating in the West Bank because of censorship violations.
Abu Rahme, who is less well known, is a cousin of Khalil Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, military chief of the Fatah wing of the PLO. He is associated with Gaza Mayor Rashid Shawa, who has close ties with Jordan.
Peres briefly met Abu Rahme last night at the Egyptian reception and shook hands with him, although the two did not hold a discussion, Peres aides said.
Senior officials said that Peres' acceptance of Seniora and Abu Rahme was based on the fact that neither holds membership in the PLO, which is illegal in Israel and the occupied territories, even though they are openly sympathetic with it.
"He has said that while Israel has no intention of searching [the delegates'] minds, it will be searching their pockets" (for weapons) one senior official said, referring to the proposed delegates.
The other five proposed delegates on the list are affiliated with the PLO and, presumably, will be formally rejected by Israel if their names appear on the final list, although Peres' position has been that Israel does not have to respond officially to the list because the Reagan administration has not yet decided whether Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy will meet with the proposed delegates.
Israel is still waiting for "clarifications" of the U.S. position on the proposed delegates, while emphasizing its opposition to any preliminary discussions between Murphy and the joint delegation that exclude Israel.
The Peres aides said they understood PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's interest in having his delegates meet with Murphy, because it could lead to indirect U.S. recognition of the PLO. But they said such a meeting would undermine rather than contribute to Middle East peace.
"The big problem in the Middle East has not been a lack of Arab-American dialogue or a lack of Israeli-American dialogue. It is a lack of Israeli-Arab dialogue. The only progress on the Palestinian issues can come from direct Arab-Israeli contact," the official said, adding, "Anything that appears as an attempt [by the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation] to sit down with the United States would not help."
When reminded that the foundation of the Camp David peace accords was laid in U.S.-Egyptian negotiations that frequently excluded Israel, the senior official said, "There is a big difference between shuttle diplomacy that complements direct contact and shuttle diplomacy that undermines direct contact."
Peres, in his remarks at Herzliya last night, was cautious about normalization of relations with Egypt. The two countries established diplomatic ties as part of the 1979 peace treaty, but relations gradually worsened until they collapsed after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Senior Israeli officials, too, were cautious, describing the improvement in the atmosphere as a "trickle" and characterizing the continuing dispute between Egypt and Israel over territory in Taba, on the Israeli-Egyptian border, as a "cork."
One official said tonight that a group of about 40 Egyptian tourists was in Israel now -- only the second travel group in the past year -- and that "a few hundred" Egyptian tourists are expected in August and September.
But Israeli officials acknowledged that in the past signals of warming relations between Israel and Egypt had vanished and that further impasses in the Taba dispute could jeopardize chances for normalization.