Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Morocco's King Hassan II each said publicly today that he would be willing to meet with the other and that there had been contacts between them in an effort to set up a meeting.
Hassan, who enjoys greater than usual visibility in the Arab world because he is current chairman of the Arab League, said in an interview with French journalists that he had told Peres, "If you have something serious to discuss about Middle East peace , come and see me."
Israeli officials said that there had been a number of contacts between Hassan and Israeli leaders over the years but that none had been made public. Hassan's interview with the French journalists was released by the official Moroccan news agency.
Aside from contacts between Egypt and Israel, and rumored meetings between Israeli leaders and Jordan's King Hussein, talks between Peres and Hassan would break considerable new ground in Israel's contacts with the Arab world and would come at a delicate time in the Middle East peace process.
Earlier in the day, before the Peres-Hassan exchange became public, Peres, without referring to Morocco, said in an interview with The Washington Post that "some other Arab countries, whether tacitly or openly, are supportive" of Peres' efforts to move the peace process with Jordan forward.
Tonight, a spokesman for Peres said that the prime minister is willing to meet with Hassan "any time and any place" and that this had been conveyed in an exchange of messages between the two leaders.
Hassan, who is preparing for a trip to France, did not explain what type of proposal he would consider "serious," but he said the 1983 Arab plan for Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and mutual recognition of Israel and the Arab states remains on the table.
"But this does not rule out another approach, provided it leads to the required result," he added.
"In my opinion, the Arabs must try by all means, not to liberate the land, but liberate the men . . . the citizens, the man of the city, but a city in peace with all its neighbors. This is the priority," he said.
In the interview with The Washington Post earlier today, Peres talked of another important element in the Middle East peace equation -- the role of the Soviet Union.
Peres said that in exchange for Soviet participation in an international forum for peace in the Middle East, Israel would demand and expect that Moscow both renew diplomatic relations and allow significant numbers of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel.
Both requirements go hand in hand, Peres said in the interview, adding that he "wouldn't like to start by deducting one of the two."
In most of his previous public statements and private conversations, Peres had listed separately restoration of Soviet-Israeli relations and increased emigration of Soviet Jews as prerequisites for an accompanying role for Moscow in Israeli-Jordanian peace negotiations. His statements today that "both points" were part of the Israeli "demand" put more clearly into focus what, from the Israeli perspective, the Kremlin has to do to become a player, even in an initial international conference, in Middle East peace talks.
Peres, in the interview, also reiterated that he would welcome direct negotiations with Syria. But he said, "If you ask me, 'Are the Syrians ready?' " to join the peace process, "my answer is no."
Peres said that in his view, the Syrians have a "higher aim" than peace in their political priorities -- that of establishing hegemony in the Arab world -- and "they feel that for them it is easier to lead the Arab world against Israel than for peace with Israel."
But, Peres said, if Syria came to the conference table, Israel would be prepared to discuss all outstanding issues. This would include, he said, the Golan Heights territory that Israel captured during the 1967 war and later annexed. But Peres did not indicate that he was seriously contemplating any change in the strategic heights.
"We have decided on the Golan Heights. We have a position. So, we would come with our position, and the Syrians are free to come with their position. I mean, don't expect us to come with the Syrian position," Peres said.
As an inducement to getting direct peace talks with Jordan started, Peres earlier had announced his willingness to allow some form of international auspices at the initial stage. But he stressed that any such forum -- which he described as "a sort of international approval or support" for the peace process -- could not be a substitute for direct Jordanian-Israeli negotiations that would lead to solutions for both sides.
Peres said that Israel and Jordan "have created a conflict, and we have to solve it; and we don't expect anybody else to do it for us."
As for Moscow's possible participation, he said, "If the Soviet Union will remain one-sided, as they are today without diplomatic ties with Israel, in fact they exclude themselves from this sort of support."
Saying that Secretary of State George P. Shultz had expressed the same two conditions this week, Peres added, "We expect that the Soviet Union will renew its diplomatic relations with Israel and allow Jewish people the right of repatriation. This is the word which is agreed more or less between the participants. That's our position."
Peres ruled out Syrian proposals for some sort of pan-Arab delegation to attend a peace conference. "All negotiations would be of a bilateral nature, namely country by country, because the minute you will have an Arab delegation, as the Syrians have proposed, you won't have negotiations, you will have negations, because obviously the most extreme Arab parties will not permit the more forthcoming Arab parties to go ahead."
"Imagine that instead of Camp David, where the Egyptians and the Israelis negotiated," he continued, "there would be an Arab delegation. Nothing would have come out of Camp David. So, if the Syrians are ready to have bilateral negotiations without prior conditions, Israel would surely attend. . . . Every side has the right to put on the table any proposal they have in their minds."
Although U.N. speeches this fall by Peres and Hussein appeared to give a new impetus to the peace process, the momentum appears to have stalled over the issue of the conduct of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Asked whether the peace process needs a new, major U.S. initiative, Peres replied, "No, I think the Americans are quite active, and I think now the man who has to decide is King Hussein. It is his time because the king tried very hard to lead the PLO in the direction of negotiations, hoping, from his point of view, that the PLO will change its course."
Senior Israeli officials, meanwhile, suggested that the Soviets have been acting behind the scenes to encourage PLO intractability.
"The Russians are hinting to the PLO, 'Why should you do it? Why don't you insist, as you did in the past, on a separate Palestinian state?' " one senior Israeli official said. "And while the Jordanians feel that they have achieved something in the negotiations by not having the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, the Russians are asking, 'Are you or aren't you the sole representative?' Here you can feel provocative questions, which are not thought to be innocent."
Israeli officials said an alternative to PLO participation along with Jordan in direct talks could be a small delegation of Palestinians not affiliated formally with the PLO, perhaps as small as two persons.
The only nominees to the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation who Peres has said are acceptable to Israel -- East Jerusalem newspaper editor Hanna Siniora and Gaza Strip lawyer Fayez Abu Rahme -- said in interviews that they felt time was running out on an opportunity for peace talks and that they were prepared to go to the negotiating table as the only two Palestinian representatives, if necessary. But both said PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat clearly was the acknowledged leader of the Palestinian people.
They and other West Bank Palestinian leaders cited a confluence of recent events that they said seemed to open up a unique opportunity between now and next summer for a settlement.
Favorable events, they said, include the positive statements by Peres and Hussein, recent improvements in Jordanian-Syrian relations, an improved security situation for Israel in southern Lebanon, still-active U.S. involvement and a better general atmosphere growing out of the just-concluded U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Geneva.
Among the factors producing a sense that this opportunity could fade, however, is the approach next fall of the end of Peres' time in office and the prospect that a right-wing Likud government would be less likely to make a deal and the prospect that President Reagan's power to influence the peace process may decline as his term in office nears its end.
Peres also was asked about the arrest of civilian U.S. Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan J. Pollard on spy charges outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington last week, but he declined comment.