Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, appeared discouraged as he returned Thursday from a European tour that failed to produce any breakthrough in the stalled Middle East peace process. The 11-day trip had two basic aims: to serve as a showcase for Peres the statesman, and to improve the chances for negotiations to begin soon between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian team.
The private assessment of Peres's aides is that their boss succeeded beyond expectations on the first count, but that his warm reception in Europe was eclipsed in Israeli public opinion by setbacks in ties with Egypt and not enough movement with Jordan.
Peres's aides are anxious to achieve a breakthrough in the peace process because in October the premiership will rotate to Yitzhak Shamir, leader of the hard-line Likud bloc, according to an earlier agreement. Many Labor Party officials feel that a dramatic chance to make peace with another Arab neighbor would both cause the downfall of the coalition government and give Labor a chance to defeat Likud in elections this spring.
Aides were bitter at the chilly reception accorded to Israeli minister Ezer Weiz-man, who journeyed to Cairo to persuade Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to hold a summit soon with Peres. The trip was a failure.
Expectations of a breakthrough had been raised at the start of the trip to Europe, with United States envoy, Richard Murphy, shuttling between Peres and Jordan's King Hussein. Mr. Murphy and other senior US diplomats reportedly focused on narrowing gaps between Israeli and Jordanian positions on the format of an international peace conference and Palestinian participation in the process.
King Hussein returned from a private trip to London to see Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat in Amman for what all sides have described as a crucial meeting. But initial reports have disappointed Israel. Hussein, senior Israeli officials say, wanted answers to three questions: Would Arafat accept key United Nations Security Council resolutions as the basis for talks? Would he renounce all forms of violence? Would he negotiate directly with Israel? If Arafat could not answer yes to all three questions, Hussein reportedly would ask his approval to proceed toward talks along with PLO-approved Palestinians.
Initial reports from Amman indicate that so far, Arafat has both refused to say yes to the three questions and refused to give his blessings to Hussein proceeding with non-PLO Palestinians. It was unclear whether Hussein would continue his efforts without PLO backing. Should he opt out of pursuing his peace initiative further, Peres and his party will be groping for an issue over which to break up the government before rotation in October.
``We have got to start applying pressure, to show the Egyptians that there are costs to not warming up relations with Israel, to show the King that there are risks, also, in not pursuing peace,'' one senior Israeli official said.
The focus on the slow-moving peace process did, indeed, overshadow what the Israelis accompanying Peres to Europe believed were some tangible successes.
In Berlin Wednesday, a senior Israeli official said he believed the trip had succeeded in ``creating a new atmosphere'' in Europe toward Israel. The Israelis have regarded Europe as increasingly pro-Arab and critical of Israel in recent years.
But Peres has stressed the need to present Israel's case to Europeans and wean them away from support for the PLO. His aides say they believed that Peres's discussions with officials in the Netherlands, Britain, and West Germany revealed, in the words of one official ``a lot of latent support for Israel.''
The prime minister's moderate speeches, numerous public appearances and low-key approach all furthered Peres's strategy to overcome what he has regarded as Israel's tendency toward dangerous isolationism, his aides say.
``But now, Peres feels his trip was ruined in the minds of Israelis by the Weizman disaster,'' one official said.
For Peres, Israeli public opinion is a far more valuable asset now than increased international sympathy.