Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy is to visit Israel, Jordan and Egypt this week to pursue reviving the Mideast peace process, and U.S. officials said he might meet with a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation during the trip or soon after.
"It's an option, but no final decision has been made," a senior State Department official told reporters in response to questions about whether the administration is preparing to respond positively to Jordanian King Hussein's proposal in February for the United States to confer with such a delegation.
Other department officials said the decision will depend to a great degree on Murphy's assessment of whether Israel, which has strongly opposed such a meeting, will harden its opposition to the point of refusing to cooperate further with the U.S. effort. That would defeat the U.S. goal of direct peace talks between Israel and Jordan.
In addition, these officials said, Murphy, assistant secretary for Mideast affairs, will have to find ways of getting around Hussein's demands that the United States recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization and that the peace talks be held under the umbrella of an international conference including the Soviet Union.
In the U.S. view, these conditions would scuttle the objective of direct talks because Israel will not take part in any process involving the PLO. The United States also fears that the intrusion of the Soviet Union or other outside countries would prevent any negotiations from achieving meaningful results.
The senior official, who briefed reporters on condition that he not be identified, refused to discuss these questions or how the United States plans to deal with them.
But he tacitly acknowledged their importance in determining whether Murphy meets with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. He said there will be such a meeting only "if it leads to direct negotiations between the parties." There will be no meeting, he added, if it appears that the result would damage chances of getting Israel and Jordan together at the negotiating table.
Nevertheless, department officials expressed cautious optimism about Murphy's trip. They said "there is a sense of movement" in recent U.S. contacts with the parties involved that has "bettered the chances" of his meeting with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation even though "there are still some questions" to be worked out.
The largest of these appears to involve the attitude of Israel, which fears that U.S. acquiesence in Hussein's proposal would lead to American recognition of the PLO. Last month Hussein proposed a list of seven Palestinians for inclusion in the delegation, but Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said only two were acceptable to his government.
Despite Peres' opposition to any preliminary meetings that exclude Israel, U.S. officials believe that he wants talks with Hussein and, in the final analysis, will be flexible about letting the administration talk with a small and relatively sanitized group of Palestinians.
Less clear is the attitude of Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who heads the conservative Likud faction of Peres' coalition government. Last Friday, Shamir, who is to become prime minister in July under the coalition's power-sharing agreement, warned that a U.S. meeting with the Hussein-proposed delegation "would hurt the fabric of relations between Israel and the United States."
Many Israelis believe that the Likud is so opposed to the present U.S. course that it would threaten to break up the coalition and plunge Israel into new political turmoil if Peres stands still for a U.S. meeting with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
The U.S. administration has said it will not give Israel veto power over its strategy in the peace process, and the senior official noted yesterday that Israel and Jordan have disclaimed the desire for such a veto. But other U.S. officials pointed out privately that the United States will have to calculate very carefully whether going ahead with a meeting would threaten Peres' ability to continue cooperating with U.S. efforts.
The Murphy trip also comes in the wake of a meeting in Casablanca last week of moderate Arab states, which "took note of" but failed to endorse the Jordanian-Palestinian approach to the peace process. U.S. officials, noting that the summit did not reject Hussein's actions, said their "net assessment of the Casablanca communique was mildly positive."
For security reasons, the State Department declined to say when Murphy is to leave. The official said Murphy's itinerary calls for visits to Jordan, Israel and Egypt, but that other countries might be added if circumstances warrant.