Washington — Israel and the United States believe there is hope for the Mideast peace process. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres held talks Thursday with President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz on the prospects for negotiations.
No details were made public, but an Israeli official said later that the Americans ``are putting a lot of effort into thought of how to promote the peace process. They believe there have been setbacks but they definitely see opportunities that didn't exist a week ago.''
From an Israeli perspective, the chief opportunity has been delivered by the botched hijacking of an Italian cruise ship, followed by the British refusal to meet with Palestine Liberation Organization officials invited to London by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Israel has been trying for months to convince Washington that the PLO is still a terrorist organization uninterested in peace negotiations. Officials close to Mr. Peres say that not only does the Reagan administration agree with that view, but that Jordan's King Hussein also is running out of patience with PLO chief Yasser Arafat.
Mr. Peres has adopted as the theme of his trip here that the hijacking was a PLO operation, and that it demonstrated conclusively that the PLO is an unacceptable partner for negotiating peace.
``We could not have arrived at a more opportune time,'' observed a senior official close to Peres, who received almost a hero's welcome from Mr. Shultz, legislators, and others at an Israeli Embassy reception Wednesday.
As the Israelis arrived in Washington, a body discovered by the Syrians was identified as that of Leon Klinghoffer, the American believed to have been murdered by the Achille Lauro hijackers. According to reports, the body showed signs of gunshot wounds.
In Israel, the government released edited transcripts of ship-to-shore conversations between the hijackers and Palestine Liberation Front leader Muhammad Abul Abbas. Israel claims the transcripts show that Mr. Abbas, a member of the PLO executive committee, masterminded the hijacking. Although no evidence has yet linked Arafat to the hijacking, the affair has embarrassed him.
``For the first time, both the American administration and the American media are making a direct link between the PLO and terrorism,'' said one clearly pleased Israeli official.
Peres insists that the discrediting of the PLO does not mean an end to the peace process initiated last February when King Hussein and Arafat signed an accord to jointly pursue negotiations.
Recent statements by Hussein back up that assessment, Peres said during an impromptu press conference on his jet en route to Washington Wednesday.
``For the first time, the Jordanians made a public declaration against the PLO,'' Peres said. He referred to a Jordanian statement issued after British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe refused to meet with PLO members of a Jordanian-PLO team in London Monday. A PLO representative had refused to sign a statement recognizing Israel's right to exist and denouncing terrorism. Jordan then issued a statement blaming the collapse of the planned meeting on the PLO. The King later repeated in a BBC in terview that the responsibility lay on the PLO.
``There are many people on the West Bank, including important leaders, who would be ready to support Arafat if he would provide them with a solution,'' Peres said on the plane. ``But they are beginning to learn that Arafat is not going to provide them with a solution. I believe they will look anew to the leadership of King Hussein.''
That view, analysts here and in the Middle East say, may be just wishful thinking from an Israeli government that has always preferred to negotiate the fate of the West Bank with Jordan. It is unclear whether Hussein, although he appears angered at the PLO, will change his oft-stated view that Jordan alone could never negotiate with Israel on the fate of the West Bank and the Palestinians.
The whole affair has also put the Middle East, at least temporarily, back at the top of the administration's agenda. Peres, originally scheduled for one meeting each with Shultz and Reagan, is now scheduled to meet four times with Shultz.
``You don't have that intensity of talks merely to look nostalgically on what might have been with the peace process,'' one Israeli official observed.
Peres is hoping to convince the Americans that his call for direct negotiations with Hussein and non-PLO Palestinians is not unrealistic. But selling that idea to the Americans is a different matter from selling it to Hussein, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the Palestinians.
However, the US government's interception of an Egyptian civilian airliner carrying the hijackers has severely strained US-Egyptian relations and led to threats from Arab extremists of retaliation against American targets overseas.
``There is unlikely to be any major breakthrough,'' one senior official with Peres acknowledged. ``But the process is still alive, and we believe, still moving forward.''