Prime Minister Shimon Peres' surprise visit to Morocco evoked reactions ranging from tempered optimism to bitter condemnation from the two ends of Israel's political spectrum today, but no expectations of a major breakthrough in the moribund Middle East peace initiatives.
As Peres met with King Hassan II in the most open contact between Israel and an Arab state since meetings in the late 1970s between Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and then-prime minister Menachem Begin, there was scarcely any of the kind of peace-fever euphoria that marked the early days of the Camp David negotiations. Sadat was killed in 1981.
Ironically, the extreme right and far left of Israel's political parties found themselves in agreement in criticizing Peres' visit to Morocco, but for different reasons.
Palestinian nationalists in the occupied West Bank largely viewed the talks as potentially undermining the influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Middle East peace process.
Israeli officials said they viewed Peres' trip as part of a gradual process of recognition of the Jewish state by moderate Arab countries. For that reason, they said, the meetings would serve the cause of Middle East peace even if no substantive agreements came out of them.
"Since 1948, we have welcomed all forms of contacts with all Arab countries, whether secret, discreet, covert or overt," said a Foreign Ministry official, recalling that then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin met with Hassan in Morocco in 1976 and that then-foreign minister Moshe Dayan and Peres, when he was opposition Labor Party leader, also traveled to Morocco between 1977 and 1981. Dayan died in 1981.
One government analyst noted that Hassan -- and before him his father, the late Mohammed V -- had traditionally maintained a close relationship with Morocco's Jewish community of about 18,000.
The analyst suggested that while the Peres visit benefits Israel by pushing it one more step on the road toward legitimacy, Hassan also stands to gain in his effort to secure more U.S. economic and military aid to shore up the ailing Moroccan economy.
Whatever comes out of the talks, Israeli analysts predicted, Hassan will have enhanced his image among moderate Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein and heads of conservative Arab states in the Persian Gulf.
Abba Eban, chairman of the parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said in an interview, "The object of the meeting is the meeting itself, the illustration of the fact that the head of an Arab state meets openly and publicly with the prime minister of Israel without any inhibitions about Israel's legitimacy as a state, and with the clear implication that he advocates such a course for others."
Cabinet Minister Ezer Weizman, Peres' chief mediator with Egypt and a key adviser on Arab affairs, called the meeting a "very important event, regardless of its result." He said, "It ought to give encouragement to certain Arab leaders that the peaceful way, the talking way, instead of the shooting way, is the preferable way."
While he said he did not expect a "breakthrough" from the meeting, Weizman said, "I'm sure Mr. Peres wouldn't have gone on a wild goose chase to the mountains of Morocco just to come back and say, 'Ha! Nothing was done.' I'm positive something very, very interesting and very fundamental will come out of it."
However, from both ends of Israel's political spectrum came condemnation of Peres' trip as a public relations gimmick that at best would produce no significant results, and at worst would complicate the search for a comprehensive Middle East peace.
Parliament member Ehud Olmert, of the rightist Likud bloc, said, "By creating the illusion that there is a great step forward to some kind of peace, he Hassan is changing his role from a friend of Gadhafi to that of a great peacemaker. But the realities are somewhat different."
Geula Cohen, a legislator from the rightist Tehiya Party, viewed Peres' visit as part of a scheme in which Peres and Hussein are planning to "Jordanize" the West Bank by neutralizing the PLO influence there. "This is not promoting peace. It's promoting us to withdraw from parts of Judea and Samaria, and that's why I'm very much concerned," Cohen said.
Meir Wilner, a legislator from the Marxist Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, called Peres trip "one of those illusions that it is possible to solve the problems in the Middle East and the Israeli-Arab conflict while skipping over the significant factor, which is the Palestinian people and their representative, the PLO."
Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were largely critical of the trip, calling it an attempt by Peres to enlist Hassan's help in persuading Hussein to negotiate directly with Israel, thereby further undermining the PLO's influence in the occupied territories.
East Jerusalem newspaper editor Hanna Siniora, who was one of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's nominees to a now-defunct Joint Palestinian-Jordanian negotiating committee that was to have opened talks with Israel under Hussein's 1984 peace initiative, said he regarded Hassan as a "kind of broker" who was trying to encourage the opening of peace talks.
"It duplicates the steps that Mr. Sadat took when he came to Israel, and here we see an Israeli leader for the first time . . . going openly to an Arab country and being received by an Arab head of state," Siniora said.
But, Siniora said, if the PLO is not included in the peace talks, the gesture will have been meaningless and "radicalization in all the refugee camps will grow."
Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, a moderate who frequently meets with Israeli officials and who has close ties to Jordan, enthusiastically endorsed Peres' trip, calling it a "courageous and wise step" that will encourage moderate Arab states to open negotiations with Israel, while at the same time buttressing Hassan's status as a catalyst of moderation in the Arab world.