US envoy ends Mideast trip amid criticism from Israeli leaders

The stiff Israeli opposition to a meeting between United States envoy Richard Murphy and a Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team has complicated efforts to achieve a breakthrough in the Mideast peace process. ``It's a non-starter, futile, and counterproductive,'' says one Israeli official of the proposed meeting, and Israeli leaders did their best during Mr. Murphy's visit here last week to convince him he was on the wrong track.

Murphy ended his tour in Amman yesterday, apparently without agreeing to Jordan's call for talks between the US and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team. He had earlier visited Israel and Egypt.

The Israelis told Murphy that they opposed any talks that did not involve them, and warned that a meeting with a delegation including members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would violate a 1975 US commitment not to talk to the group unless it recognized Israel and suspended attacks against it.

Israeli officials say that if Murphy talks to a joint delegation including the PLO it would mean US recognition of the organization, and would be merely ``an exercise in improving US-PLO relations,'' not a step toward peace. They say the move would ``give new life'' to the PLO and bring it back into Middle East diplomacy after a long political decline. However, some officials have said they would not oppose private meetings between Murphy and individual Palestinians who are not members of the PLO or an official delegation.

Israel earlier rejected the Jordanian idea of an international peace conference on grounds that hard-line participants would make agreement impossible. Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said such a conference would be a springboard for greater Soviet involvement in the region.

Israeli officials say privately that they believe Jordan's King Hussein wants to talk peace and is only using the international conference idea to get around radical Arab opposition to direct negotiations with Israel. But they are concerned over the King's alliance with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, who they fear would use the conference and preliminary talks with the US solely to legitimize his organization and establish a Palestinian state.

In its present structure, the officials say, the PLO is inherently incapable of recognizing Israel and accepting peaceful coexistence with it.

Faced with the flurry of opposition, Murphy reiterated State Department assurances to Israel that there would be no meetings with a joint delegation unless the talks were guaranteed to lead to direct negotiations with Israel. He also cited the US position that it would not talk with the PLO unless the organization accepted UN resolutions implying recognition of Israel.

Israeli officials say the US conditions were not met during Murphy's talks in Jordan last week. ``Murphy got no guarantees of direct talks, and the proposed composition of the joint delegation gives no assurance that the PLO is not getting in through the back door,'' says one official.

The stiff opposition Murphy encountered in Jerusalem and the grim Israeli assessments after his departure Saturday dramatized the yawning gap which still separates the leaders with whom Murphy met.

King Hussein, gingerly picking his way to talks in the face of radical Arab opposition, has stuck to his Feb. 11 negotiating agreement with Yasser Arafat despite a failure to win moderate Arab endorsement of the pact at the recent Arab summit in Casablanca, Morocco.

The accord commits Jordan and the PLO to negotiate an exchange of land for peace at an international conference, and envisions a confederation between Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now occupied by Israel.

Facing Hussein are the leaders of Israel's governing coalition, who, despite their ideological differences, are united in rejection of the King's alliance with the PLO. They believe the organization is a terrorist group unfit for negotiations, and that its partnership with Hussein will at best limit the King's diplomatic maneuverability and at worst give the organization veto power over future Jordanian peace moves.

Despair at this seemingly insoluble deadlock was perhaps why Prime Minister Shimon Peres told Murphy in their last meeting that most efforts should now be concentrated on Israeli-Egyptian relations.

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