Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres's visit to the United States this week could be the critical turning point for his premiership and for the latest efforts to start Middle East peace negotiations. Mr. Peres's message to President Reagan will be that Peres wants the peace process to continue -- and that he is willing to make some concessions to keep it alive.
The prime minister has good reason to keep the process moving. He has less than a year left to serve as prime minister before he must, by agreement, hand over his seat to Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, leader of the rightist Likud half of the coalition government.
A breakthrough leading to negotiations with Jordan would give Peres his only chance, analysts here say, of bringing down the coalition and forming a Labor-led government by a narrow margin. Likud and Labor's differences over the future of Israeli-occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are so fundamental that Likud would almost certainly walk out if talks with a Jordanian-Palestinian team began.
What is unclear is what Peres will offer to keep Jordan's King Hussein interested in pursuing the process he started last spring along with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, Yasser Arafat, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
For Peres intends also to tell the Americans that Israel is adamantly opposed to any PLO involvement in peace talks. The Israelis got an unexpected boost Monday when British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe cancelled a planned meeting in London with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. (Details on P. 2)
In the wake of the British debacle and the US action in the ship hijacking, Peres expects to find a sympathetic ear in Washington for his argument against the PLO. The Israelis see the cancellation of the British-PLO meeting as strengthening Peres's argument that the PLO is unstable and cannot be trusted to renounce violence and pursue a negotiated settlement.
Peres welcomed Mr. Reagan's decision to force down the Egyptian airliner carrying the four men suspected of hijacking the Italian cruise ship and murdering an American passenger. After dispatching a letter to Reagan praising the US action, Peres insisted that Mr. Arafat was directly responsible for the hijacking.
To date, the Israelis have publicly produced none of the ``irrefutable proof'' they claim to hold on Arafat's complicity. But they have been sharing intellignece information with the Americans. The administration appears inclined to accept Israel's contention that the hijacking, believed to have been carried out by the Tunis-based splinter group, the Palestine Liberation Front, could not have occurred without Arafat's knowledge.
The US reaction to the Achille Lauro hijacking is viewed here as firmly linking Israel and the US in the fight against international terrorism.
Officials in Jerusalem say that both Egypt and Jordan are angry with Arafat for the hijacking, but it is unlikely that Hussein, whose population is mostly Palestinian, will be publicly willing to break with Arafat.
The Egyptians were humiliated by US's public criticism of how Egypt handled negotiations to end the hijacking. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak called the American interception of the hijackers after they left Egyptian air space an act of ``piracy.''
It will now take a powerful incentive to induce Hussein to go forward on talks with Israel without the PLO. What Peres plans to offer, officials say, is flexibility on an international peace conference. Israel and the US have so far opposed Hussein's idea of convening an international conference composed of the five permanent members of the US Security Council and all parties to the conflict.
But Peres now is moderating his position, saying that if the Soviet Union restores diplomatic ties with Israel, he may be willing to reconsider the Israeli position on Soviet participation in the peace process.
Peres has been trying hard to improve contacts with the Soviets, who broke diplomatic ties with Israel in the wake of the 1967 Mideast war. It is a generally held view in government circles here that the chances for the Soviets restoring diplomatic ties with Israel hinge on a thawing of relations between the US and the Soviet Union.
The events of the past two weeks -- Israel's bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunis, the Palestinian hijacking of the Italian vessel, and the US interception of the suspected hijackers -- have more closely cemented relations between the US and Israel, officials here say. The Reagan administration and the American public seem fed up with terrorist acts and eager to take a more aggressive approach in bringing terrorists to justice.
That's good for Israel's bilateral relations with the US. But it is uncertain that a united American-Israeli front against PLO participation in peace talks will leave much room for Jordan's king and Egypt's president to manuever to a negotiating table.