The Israeli government said tonight that it would seek clarification of conflicting accounts of a purported offer by Morocco's King Hassan II to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres to discuss Middle East peace.
Hassan today was quoted in Rabat as saying, "If Mr. Peres has something concrete to put foward, he can put his proposals in an envelope and address them to the secretary general of the U.N." He also said Israel would have to agree to discuss giving up its occupied Arab territories and granting self-determination to Palestinians.
This was seen here as a step back from a statement the Moroccan news agency last night quoted Hassan as making. It said he had told French journalists he would agree to a meeting with Peres as long as the Israeli leader had "something serious" to propose.
Earlier today, before learning of Hassan's second statement, Peres had said he would definitely meet with the Moroccan king, although Israeli officials said that no date had been set for such a meeting. They said that apart from recent diplomatic exchanges concerning a meeting, Israel had received no official confirmation from Rabat of Hassan's intention to meet with Peres.
Of Hassan's later conditional statement, a senior Israeli official said tonight, "It came as a surprise, but so did the original statement. It looks like he got badly hit by his Arab colleagues."
Hassan's second statement stood in stark contrast to Peres' confident predictions that a meeting with Hassan would take place.
"We will meet. I'm prepared for us to meet. He will say what he has to say and I will say what I have to say. Neither of us can guarantee that through this discussion we will solve all the problems," Peres said in a speech to high school students at Bat Yam today before Hassan said that his earlier remarks had been misinterpreted.
Peres said he regarded such contact as a "psychological and substantive advantage" in starting broader peace talks.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, meanwhile, said today in an interview before Hassan's second statement that he saw "positive" elements in the reported offer by the king to meet with Peres, but that convening peace negotiations with less distant Arab neighbors is more important.
"I don't think it's a very new development, but, well, there is a readiness on our part to meet with Arab leaders to talk about ways to put an end to this conflict," Shamir said.
Shamir, leader of the national unity coalition government's Likud faction, expressed reservations, however, over what appeared to be conditions set by the Moroccan monarch.
Hassan, chairman of the Arab League, told French journalists in Rabat yesterday that Peres "sent word that he would like to see me. I replied that I would receive him with great pleasure, but told him, 'You and I cannot be just tourists.' "
But Hassan also said he would meet Peres only if the Israeli leader brought "serious" proposals. He said the 1983 Arab plan for Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and mutual recognition of Israel and Arab states remains on the table.
Hassan acted as an early intermediary in the Israeli-Egyptian contact that ultimately led to the 1979 Camp David peace treaty, and reportedly has met with Peres and other Israeli leaders several times, without public announcement. But Shamir said he regarded the Moroccan monarch -- at least for the moment -- as on the fringes of the peace process.
Shamir, in an interview today before Hassan said his original remarks had been misinterpreted, indicated he was not personally aware of the initial exchanges between Hassan and Peres.
"I don't think there was a need or it was necessary to bring it to my attention. It was nothing operational," Shamir said.
However, another senior Israeli official close to recent diplomatic exchanges between Morocco and Israel attached greater significance to Hassan's original reported offer to hold direct talks with Peres.
The official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said shortly before Hassan's new statement was made public, "It could become an important catalyst for a new impetus to the peace process."
Noting that Hassan is widely respected among Arab leaders, the official said, "It could help [Jordanian] King Hussein come foward and say, 'Okay, what Hassan can do, I can do also.' "
Hussein, the official observed, appeared to be waiting to see if Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat will publicly accept U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, which recognize Israel's right to exist within secure borders.
If the PLO refused to accept the resolutions, the official said, Hussein would be in a position to announce his intention to advance the peace initiative without Arafat