Following two weeks of terrorism and diplomatic uncertainty in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres's call for movement in the stalled peace process has been warmly welcomed in Washington. ``It's not insignificant,'' says one Middle East expert. ``Peres and [Jordan's King] Hussein are really talking to each other through these speeches. Each is trying to help the other move closer to making a deal.''
But scholars and diplomats alike caution that despite its positive tone, Mr. Peres's speech on Monday has probably done little to clear away the obstacles that so far have made such a deal unattainable.
In remarks before the 40th anniversary session of the UN General Assembly, Peres said Israel was ready to end the ``state of war'' between Israel and Jordan, and called for the creation -- within 30 days -- of ``working groups'' to set the agenda and procedures for peace talks between Israel and a joint delegation of Jordanians and Palestinians.
In particular, hopes were raised when Peres appeared to open the door to a compromise with King Hussein regarding Jordan's insistence on an international conference to provide the setting for future peace talks. While not directly endorsing such a conference, Peres said peace talks could be ``initiated with the support of an international forum.''
``If Jordan feels very strongly that they need a sort of silver lining, of an international character, why not?'' said Peres Tuesday on NBC's ``Today'' program.
The major sticking point to an international setting for the conference is Israel's precondition that the Soviet Union reestablish diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, broken in 1967. The Soviet Union is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, under whose auspices an international conference would be called. Even though both countries have been probing each other on the matter, diplomatic observers say it would be almost impossible to restore ties in time to help the peace process.
The second obstacle remains the role of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in future peace talks. In his remarks to the UN, Peres appeared to leave open the possibility that the PLO may eventually participate in the peace process if it publicly renounced terrorism.
But Tuesday, Peres insisted that Israel has closed the door on the PLO. This leaves Israel at odds with Jordan, which has set PLO participation as a condition for future talks. Despite the diminished standing of the PLO after last week's hijacking of the Italian ocean liner Achille Lauro, experts say no acceptable alternative to the PLO has emerged.
Peres's comments came as the Reagan administration formally notified Congress on Monday of its intent to sell Jordan nearly $2 billion in advanced weapons, including fighter planes and anti-aircraft defenses.
Administration officials say the arms are necessary to sustain Jordan's commitment to the peace process. Critics of the sale in Congress, representing apparent majorities in the House and Senate, say they will oppose arms sales to any Arab country that has not recognized and made peace with Israel. The search is now underway for some compromise that would allow sales to Jordan in return for the start of peace talks.
Congressional sources say such a deal will be harder in the aftermath of complications following the Achille Lauro incident. But they say if Congress links arms sales to the start of the peace process, this could spur progress towards negotiations.