US steps up Mideast effort. US is in almost daily contact with Arabs and Israel in bid to convene international peace conference
Jerusalem — The United States is conducting ``almost day-to-day contact'' with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt in an effort to move the peace process forward, according to a senior Israeli official. ``What we are seeing is an intensification of the American involvement,'' said the official, who spoke to reporters Sunday on condition that he not be named. His characterization of stepped-up American involvement was confirmed by American diplomats in the region.
``The action officer on the peace process now is [Secretary of State] George Shultz,'' said one diplomat.
Top on the US agenda is how to overcome obstacles in the way of convening an international Middle East peace conference, informed Western sources say.
Mr. Shultz is scheduled to meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Moscow today to set the agenda for the Nov. 19-20 summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Privately, Israeli and Jordanian officials, as well as Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, expressed the belief that the prospects for the Soviet Union and the US jointly convening a Middle East peace conference would be raised during the Shultz-Shevardnadze meeting.
Israel and the US had previously opposed the idea of an international conference, but Prime Minister Shimon Peres has now accepted, in principle, Jordan's need for an international conference to lend legitimacy to a negotiated settlement of the future of the Israeli-held territories.
Mr. Peres expressed his willingness for nonbinding ``international accompaniment'' to direct negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian team during his speech last month before the United Nations. Jordan's King Hussein welcomed the spirit of Peres's speech.
After he returned to Israel from his trip to the US, Peres faced criticism from his Likud coalition partners for accepting the idea of ``international accompaniment'' to direct negotiations with Jordan. But Peres did not rescind his statement, as the Likud requested. Instead, he told Israel's parliament that under certain conditions Israel would be willing to participate in an international conference. It was the first time he had publicly used that term.
The Israelis were disappointed Saturday by King Hussein's annual speech to the Jordanian parliament. He made no mention in his speech of Peres's speech, although he did say that Jordan remained committed to seeking a peaceful settlement through an international conference.
Meanwhile, Peres's office spent much of last week denying reports that Israel and Jordan had reached a tentative, secret agreement to share power on the West Bank as part of an interim solution.
The reports were first leaked by an official close to the prime minister, then denied when the Americans made it clear to Peres that news of any tentative plans for autonomy on the West Bank were damaging Hussein at a crucial juncture in the process, sources say.
The King met last week with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat -- their first meeting since a rash of terrorist acts embarrassed the King and damaged Arafat's efforts to gain a place at the negotiating table.
``We have no clear interpretation yet of what happened between the King and Arafat,'' an Israeli official said. ``But we do know that Arafat did not change course.''
The Israelis publicly have been campaigning hard on the theme that the PLO now has so discredited itself as to have lost any chance of joining in peace negotiations. But privately, Israeli officials admit that the most they hope will come out of the Hussein-Arafat meeting is an agreement from Arafat to let PLO-selected Palestinians who are not members of the guerrilla organization serve in a Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team.
For its part, the US seems certain that although there may be a chance of excluding the PLO from the start of negotiations, the group must enter the talks at some stage or any interim arrangements on the West Bank will not be accepted by the Palestinians who live there.
However, Western diplomats close to the process expressed reservations about the likelihood that Jordan will accept the Israeli offer of power-sharing. One diplomat said such an arrangement could only be discussed in the context of an international conference, and even then ``the Jordanians would never accept it if it were the only agenda item,'' the diplomat said.
One scenario is that the conference would be convened jointly by theSoviet Union and the US, then break into groups. One group could work on interim arrangements for Palestinian self-government on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, another could discuss final border demarcations, and a third, the resolution of the status of Jerusalem, which both Israel and Arabs regard as sacred.
A host of difficulties remain to be solved before any such meeting could occur, officials on all sides agree. Chief among them is the willingness of the Soviets and their Syrian allies to participate.
Israel insists the Soviets can only be involved if they restore diplomatic ties with Israel or allow mass emigration of Soviet Jews. The Syrians would be unlikely to participate in any international conference unless they thought they could win back the Golan Heights, which Israel occupies and has formally annexed.
The problem of Palestinian representation is far from solved: Israel insists it won't sit down with the PLO, and Arabs insist the PLO is the only organization that can speak for the Palestinians.