Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres appeared to edge closer today to putting Middle East peace negotiations with Jordan into an international forum, despite increasingly stiff resistance from the Likud faction of his coalition government.
Following a meeting of government ministers, a senior Cabinet source suggested that the term "international accompaniment" to which Peres has repeatedly referred when discussing a format for peace talks with Jordan could be interpreted as a forum that not only initiates the negotiations but "handles" them throughout.
The Cabinet source said that no progress has been made toward reaching a decision on the question, and that it was not even the topic of a formal debate today, as it has been in most meetings since Peres announced his peace initiative before the U.N. General Assembly last month.
But the Cabinet official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said, "International accompaniment is a general term. An international conference is one of its forms. The question is whether it will be a forum that opens direct Israeli-Jordanian talks, or whether it handles the negotiations."
Peres again brought the issue to the forefront of a national debate on the peace process last night when he told a Labor Party youth meeting in Tel Aviv that since Jordan's King Hussein views international participation in peace talks as a necessary first step to direct negotiations, Israel will accept the proposal.
Peres also told the Labor group that as far as he was concerned, the Soviet Union could take part in the "international accompaniment" if it renews its diplomatic relations with Israel.
The prime minister said Hussein's demand for conducting peace talks in an international forum stems from a need to convince the rest of the Arab world that he is not seeking a separate peace with Israel for his own gain.
Peres recalled that in 1977, then-prime minister Menachem Begin gave then-president Jimmy Carter assurances that Israel would participate in a Geneva peace conference that would include the Soviet Union. That precedent, Peres suggested, should permit such international auspices now.
The Likud faction of the coalition government, led by Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, consistently has rejected any international forum for peace talks with Jordan, although it has accepted in two votes in Israel's parliament the concept of negotiations initiated at the beginning stages by an international group.
A Cabinet source emphasized today that any "international accompaniment" to peace talks would have to be based on four conditions: That there would be a consensus of all parties to the talks on the form of the accompaniment; that all parties agree on the participants; that the Palestine Liberation Organization not be permitted to take part, and that the "international accompaniment" lead to direct talks between Jordan and Israel.
Amid Likud demands that the question of an international forum be brought to a Cabinet vote, a Cabinet source close to Peres said today that Peres is not obligated to do so because the parliament twice voted its support of Peres' peace initiative, including the concept of "international accompaniment."
Deputy Prime Minister David Levy, one of the Likud's sharpest critics of the Peres peace initiative, told Israeli radio today that opponents of an international forum had their opportunity to veto it in parliament and that it was now too late to bring the topic to a Cabinet vote.
Likud Minister Moshe Arens said he did not doubt Peres' determination to begin peace talks in an international forum, but he said the prime minister could not do it without the approval of the Likud faction.
"To conduct negotiations to participate in an international conference on subjects that are fateful and critical to the existence of the state of Israel cannot be done by one person, even if he is prime minister," Arens said.
Arens said preliminary peace talks must be conducted by the foreign minister and with "the accompaniment of the Cabinet," and that the parliament could then be called upon to approve a Cabinet decision.