Israel remains prepared to use lethal force against Palestinian rioters even as its leaders push for international peace negotiations, two Israeli cabinet members said yesterday.

In separate broadcast interviews, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said from Israel that the past two weeks of violence in Israeli-occupied territories have damaged peace efforts, but not beyond hope of repair by some kind of international effort.

"It's clear more than ever before that only a political, peaceful diplomatic settlement can provide the necessary answers," Peres said on CBS's "Face the Nation" program. The Israeli public is increasingly ready for negotiations even as it backs its troops, he said. "The problem really for the time being is not what will be the permanent settlement but what will be the first step," he said.

Israeli troops have killed at least 21 protesters, wounded nearly 200 and arrested more than 1,000 since Dec. 9, when demonstrations began against Israel's occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River. The State Department last week urged Israel to maintain order "without the use of lethal force."

Rabin, who was responsible for the antiriot strategy, said on NBC News' "Meet the Press" program that the troops had used rubber bullets, fire hoses and tear gas at first, "but whenever our soldiers are in danger, their life is in danger, they are allowed to open fire with live ammunition." He added, "We'll try to reduce it to the minimum."

Peres said he would describe the shooting as "an accident, not as a policy."

A State Department official responded that the position was "not unexpected," but that live ammunition is "not an answer to the problem either."

Samuel W. Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said on "Meet the Press" that the State Department's criticism "went right to the edge of being a mistake" because it excited a nationalistic reaction. The State Department official disagreed.

"We felt strongly that Israel is not really looking at the long-run situation in using live ammunition," he said. "They have international responsibilities as an occupying power, yes, but they have to look at the potential for peace."

The Israeli officials again rejected the idea of Palestine Liberation Organization participation in the peace talks, although Rabin said that "in the context of a Jordanian delegation {there} should be a Palestinian representation," perhaps drawn from "those who reside in the territories." Jordan's role is key, he said, because 60 percent of its people are Palestinians and their descendants.

Rabin rejected any comparison of Israeli behavior in controlling riots with that of South Africa, saying Israelis are a three-to-two majority in the occupied territories while the South African government represents a tiny minority of the overwhelmingly black nation.

"What we have to drive home to the minds, the hearts, the people of the Arab countries, their leaders, the Palestinians, is that by wars, threats of wars and terror, public disorder in a violent way, they'll achieve nothing," Rabin said.