Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres turned back an attempt in parliament tonight to scuttle his plan for peace talks with Jordan. At the same time, he urged that Jordan's King Hussein not miss an opportunity for peace that Peres said has been created by a series of favorable events in the Middle East.
After seven hours of debate, Peres handily won two votes in the 120-member parliament -- a 68-to-10 acceptance of his report on the issue and an 86-to-6 rejection of a small opposition party's no-confidence measure.
Neither vote, however, was seen as an outright endorsement of Peres' approach to the talks, which has been criticized sharply by the right-wing Likud faction of his coalition government. A key factor in his victories in today's votes was the Likud's unwillingness to bring down the fragile government.
Leaders of the Likud bloc, who met with Peres earlier in the day, had said they would not oppose the motion supporting his report to the parliament, although the Likud had complained that Peres' peace offers violated the coalition agreement that led to the formation of the "national unity" government.
Likud sources said both sides were anxious to avoid a showdown that could force new elections. They added that Peres' elaboration in his parliamentary speech that no international forum could replace direct peace negotiations was enough of a face-saving gesture to satisfy Peres' sharpest critics, Trade Minister Ariel Sharon and Deputy Prime Minister David Levy.
The no-confidence motion was submitted by the Tehiya Party, which has five parliamentary seats and opposes any negotiations on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Peres, in his speech to the parliament, continued to rule out any participation by the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jordanian-Israeli peace talks, but he reiterated his offer of a "limited international forum" to begin negotiations with a delegation of Jordanians and Palestinians considered moderates by Israel.
In the face of Likud threats to precipitate a Cabinet crisis over his peace initiative, Peres defiantly said he stands by "every word" he used before the U.N. General Assembly when he offered to take part in direct peace talks with Jordan without prior conditions.
In a conciliatory tone aimed at the Jordanian king, Peres promised that Israel "will listen to every Jordanian proposal" and will open negotiations without conditions.
"I call on King Hussein that we continue working together not to miss the opportunity that has been created," Peres said. "I call on the Palestinians not to be led astray by the glitter of terrorism, and to seize the chance for a fair and realistic solution."
But he stressed that while the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council could be invited to "support the initiation of these negotiations," no international forum should replace direct negotiations between Israel and Jordan or a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
Peres also said that "only representatives who support peace" could participate in the talks, which he said "automatically excludes" the PLO from the process.
Peres said a new "dynamic situation" in the Middle East had been created because: Hussein publicly declared that he was ready to reassess his policy; France said that it will reconsider its relationship to the PLO; U.S. officials said the PLO had removed itself from negotiations; PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat was denied an opportunity to speak at the U.N. General Assembly, and a U.S. arms sale to Jordan was delayed in Congress in order to permit the opening of peace negotiations.
Hussein has said he will reject peace talks outside of an international forum or without the PLO.
Although Peres' speech was similar to what he said at the United Nations, which provoked a storm of criticism by the Likud that he had exceeded his authority in offering concessions, the Likud legislators tonight sat impassively as Peres defended his peace proposals.
Beneath the ideological clash between Labor and Likud lies a power struggle within Likud.
Anticipating the December convention of the dominant Herut wing of the Likud bloc, at which Sharon and Levy are expected to challenge Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir's leadership, the two senior ministers appeared to be seeking an advantage by keeping a crisis atmosphere alive and forcing Shamir into the uncomfortable position of siding with Peres on a volatile issue.