Israel's Peres steals the show from US pre-summit maneuvering

The most interesting new development of the past week in world affairs was an Israeli peace proposal minus the usual impossible pre-conditions. It was enough to rescue last February's peace initiative by Jordan's King Hussein from the wreckage of the Achille Lauro affair.

What comes of the new Israeli move in the long run is another matter, but it was enough to attract serious diplomatic attention and take top billing in the news from the two other continuing stories of the week.

One was attempted damage control by the United States with Italy, Egypt, and Tunisia in the wake of Achille Lauro. The other was the contest in Washington over President Reagan's agenda for the coming superpower summit in Geneva.

The news in the peace terms which Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres outlined in a UN speech and in news conferences, was that he omitted those features of the usual Israeli position which in the past have blocked serious negotiations.

Mr. Peres said he was ready to negotiate under international auspices. He would be willing to have the Soviet Union present, provided there had first been a resumption of diplomatic relations between his country and the Soviets. The opening meeting could be held in Amman, Jordan. Most important of all, he would accept a Palestinian role in the negotiations.

All it means immediately is that Peres is ready and willing to begin talking on terms which the Arabs might be able to accept, depending on the fine print when details are spelled out. Peres did not specfically rule out the Palestine Liberation Organization from participation, although this was implied. But since King Hussein is currently disenchanted with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, this is no longer an impossible hurdle.

The Peres position sounded so reasonable that professional diplomats began to wonder whether he is seriously willing to take those steps toward peace which would undoubtedly break up Israel's coalition government and give him a chance to hold elections on a peace platform.

In news conferences and interviews, Mr. Peres specifically separated himself from the position of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, held by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. This means that Peres appears willing to exchange a final peace settlement for Arab self-determination on the West Bank.

It probably means that if the Soviets resume diplomatic relations with Israel, Peres would then agree to have Israel attend a conference with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to be organized by the UN and to open under UN auspices.

Diplomats generally assume that, at that point, the conservative parties in the Israeli government would break with Peres, leave the coalition, and force a new election. Further progress toward peace would then depend on whether Peres won the election.

The road toward peace in the Middle East still stretches far into the future. But Mr. Peres did take an important first step by being willing to let negotiations open on terms which the Arabs might be able to accept. The difference may be small but it is important.

Meanwhile US Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead visited countries that had been offended by US behavior over the Israeli bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunisia and the US seizure of an Egyptian airliner carrying the Palestinian hijackers of the Achille Lauro.

In Italy, where at one point during the Achille Lauro story Italian and US troops argued over control of the hijackers, resentment against US behavior subsided, and attention turned to forming a new government.

Prime Minister Bettino Craxi is expected to rebuild his government. Chances are that Washington will in future be more sensitive to Italian feelings, and Italy will be perhaps a little less compliant to Washington wishes.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak was offered regrets for the US seizure of the Arab hijackers from an Egyptian plane without his prior consent. US-Egyptian relations appear to be settling back toward what was normal in pre-crisis times.

In Tunisia, Mr. Whitehead told the Tunisians that the US officially ``deplored'' the Oct. 1 bombing of that country by Israel in which 12 Tunisians as well as 60 Palestinians were killed.

The Tunisian government had been shocked and offended by the original Washington characterization of the bombing as being a ``legitimate response'' to ``terrorist attacks.'' This was later amended to read ``understandable as an expression of self-defense'' but not ``condoned.''

That wasn't good enough for the Tunisians who had been the victim of an act of war committed on their territory by America's client, Israel, using war planes provided to Israel by the US. So this week the Tunisians were given the consolation of a recognition by Washington that the event had been ``deplorable.''

Again, relations with the US settled back toward normal but with a Tunisian memory of having been carelessly treated in the interests of Israel.

Back in Washington, it was another week of wrangling in the White House back rooms between those who want the President to go to the summit in three weeks seeking some beginnings towards easing relations with Moscow and those who want just the opposite.

The President asserted that he is ``determined to build a more constructive relationship'' with the Soviets, but his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger accused the Soviets of violating the 1979 arms limitation treaty by allegedly deploying a new Soviet strategic missile.

So far as can be learned, there is still not an agreed presummit position on nuclear weapons.

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