Vice President George Bush today called on Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Jordan's King Hussein to hold a face-to-face meeting and begin direct negotiations as the "next logical step" in reviving the Middle East peace process.
Bush, who flies to Jordan Wednesday for talks with Hussein, made the suggestion in impromptu remarks while visiting a kibbutz at Side Boker, where Israel's early leader David Ben-Gurion lived and is buried.
The United States has previously urged Israel and Jordan to hold direct talks, but the major obstacle has been disagreement over the role of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Today, after Bush made the comment, his spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the vice president was not proposing a specific meeting between Peres and Hussein, nor was he reflecting any new initiatives from his visit to Israel this week.
Peres held a controversial meeting last week with Morocco's King Hassan II.
Fitzwater said Bush was endorsing the concept of face-to-face meetings but was not asking Hussein to attend a specific session with Peres.
Bush refused to respond today to repeated requests from reporters to expand on his remark as he toured a weapons exhibition at the Hatzerim Air Base.
The vice president has devoted most of his first two days in Israel to picture-taking sessions recorded by a video camera crew hired by his presidential campaign political action committee.
Today, for example, he laid a wreath at Ben-Gurion's tomb, visited Ben-Gurion's cottage at the kibbutz, spoke informally to children at the kibbutz, received a briefing from Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and viewed Israeli weaponry and an air show by the Israeli Air Force.
In the meeting with Rabin, the defense minister raised the issue of Israel's weapons sales and procurement relationship with the United States.
Israel is seeking the relaxation of certain barriers to arms purchases that do not exist for other close U.S. allies. Fitzwater said Bush did not respond, but a review of the situation is to be completed this fall.
Tonight, the vice president hosted a reception for West Bank Palestinian leaders. About 28 Palestinian representatives were invited, but only 18 attended the session. Some Palestinians sympathetic to the PLO had called for a boycott.
A U.S. official who was present at the reception held at the U.S. Consulate here said Bush was aware that some of those who attended had done so despite threats from the Libyan-backed Abu Nidal terrorist group.
"Some did not come because they were under terrific pressure," said the official.
Fitzwater quoted Bush as acknowledging this pressure and expressing appreciation for those who attended. He said Bush told them that if the PLO desires a role in Arab-Israeli negotiations, "just tell them to recognize 242 and 338 and there will be talks." Bush was referring to the U.N. resolutions that implicitly recognize Israel's right to exist, which the PLO has rejected.
A source present at the meeting said Bush reiterated administration policy on the conditions for negotiations and also urged the Palestinian leaders to renounce terrorism.
The senior U.S. official said many of the Palestinians, who informally chatted with the vice president, voiced complaints about standards of living on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Fitzwater said the meeting was "spirited and aggressive."
The Palestinian leaders gave Bush a document reiterating their demands for negotiations. Bush is scheduled to hold detailed discussions with Peres Wednesday and to address the Israeli Knesset before flying to Amman for talks with Hussein.
The Associated Press reported from Washington:
Wolf Blitzer, the Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, who was bumped from the press contingent traveling with the vice president, was invited by Bush to join the party in Jordan.
Blitzer, who had been told he would not be allowed to enter Jordan, said Fitzwater called him and said the problem had been solved and arrangements had been made for him to join the vice president's party in Amman.