Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in the face of strong criticism by the right-wing Likud faction of his coalition government, appeared today to modify his previous suggestions that peace talks could be initiated in an international forum, a key demand by Jordan.
Peres told his Cabinet that under the format envisioned by him, the U.N. Security Council would merely "call on the parties to the conflict" to open negotiations, and then withdraw while Israel and Jordan began direct talks.
Peres' deemphasizing the possibility of negotiations in an international forum came as Jordanian Information Minister Mohammed Khatib said in Amman that bilateral talks with Israel outside of an international conference and without the participation of the PLO were unacceptable to King Hussein.
Khatib's statement, however, did not appear aimed at detracting from remarks made Thursday by Hussein in which he praised the "positive spirit" of Peres' peace proposal, special correspondent Samira Kawar reported from Amman.
As the Israeli Cabinet debated the Jordanian-Palestinian peace initiative, Israeli warplanes attacked two Palestinian guerrilla bases in central Lebanon's Bekaa Valley this afternoon. The Army said two bases of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command near Bar Elias were damaged heavily. The targets, a spokesman said, included a base with tanks and an ammunition depot.
The PFLP-GC has made recent attacks in the border security zone maintained by the Israeli Army and its Lebanese militia, the South Lebanon Army, a military spokesman said.
Earlier today, on his return from Paris, Peres characterized the proposed arrangement for negotiations as "international accompaniment" and not negotiations under "international auspices." Previously, talking with Israeli reporters in Paris, he had referred to the U.N. role as "background music" to Israeli-Jordanian peace talks.
An Israeli Cabinet source said that what Peres has in mind is a declaration by the five permanent members of the Security Council to the effect that they would "appreciate very much" direct negotiations between Israel and Jordan toward comprehensive Middle East peace.
"If it's only a blessing, there would be no preconditions," the Cabinet source said, referring to Israel's oft-stated unwillingness to accept the Soviet Union and China in an international conference on Middle East peace until both countries establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
At the United Nations last week, Peres suggested that an international peace conference might play a role in the peace process. But he was not specific in references to its nature and the role it could play with the peace process.
"If deemed necessary, these negotiations may be initiated with the support of an international conference, as agreed upon by the negotiating states," Peres said then. "The permanent members of the Security Council may be invited to support the initiation of these negotiations."
In sharp contrast to the position declared by Jordan earlier today, an Israeli Cabinet statement said Peres "said he perceives a dramatic change in Israel's international situation at this time, a chance for the rejection of the PLO and for peace negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation."
The closed-door Cabinet debate on the issue was held after the Likud ministers flatly rejected peace negotiations under any international auspices. They also declared their opposition to any border adjustments in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, any involvement of the PLO and any interim agreements with Jordan short of a comprehensive peace.
Peres, speaking to reporters at the Tel Aviv airport, said that he had not suggested border demarcations and that he is as opposed to PLO participation in peace talks as is the Likud faction.
In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week, in which he proposed direct negotiations with Jordan, Peres referred in passing to a need to discuss border demarcations with Jordan.
Peres told reporters today that the "interim settlement" to which he referred in his U.N. speech was nothing more than the West Bank and Gaza Strip autonomy plan contained in the 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt.
Asked to explain the basis of his statements that Hussein appears more willing to negotiate with Israel without the participation of the PLO, Peres replied, "The king himself said in a public statement that he is going to reevaluate his position, so let's wait and see the results."
Israel's parliament is scheduled to debate the peace moves in a session Monday.
Kawar reported from Amman:
Information Minister Khatib's statement, issued on the eve of a crucial meeting between Hussein and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, appeared to be aimed at creating a positive backdrop to the talks, which will deal with ways of improving strained relations between the two sides.
"There have been statements made recently by American and Israeli officials suggesting that Jordan's stand with regard to direct negotiations with Israel have begun to change," Khatib said. "We would like to affirm at this time in particular that Jordan categorically refuses to hold direct negotiations or to conclude partial or separate settlements with Israel."
He said that "an international conference to be attended by all the parties concerned, including the PLO and the five permanent U.N. Security Council members . . . is the only way of achieving a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian problem."
The aim of the proposed international conference would be "the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242," Khatib said.
Resolution 242 is central to Jordan's Middle East peace policy. But the PLO is still balking at publicly endorsing it because it lacks any mention of the Palestinians.
Western diplomats and Palestinians close to the PLO expect Hussein to demand guarantees from Arafat that the PLO publicly will accept Resolution 242 as part of the next step in the peace process.