The fact that during his two years in office he failed to find the key to starting Middle East peace talks has overshadowed Shimon Peres's final visit to Washington as Israeli premier. Mr. Peres came to Washington this week to bask in the approval of President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz for his success in reducing Israel's involvement in Lebanon to that of a few hundred men patrolling a border strip, and boosting Israel's economy.
But Peres also sought a commitment from Mr. Shultz to send US Mideast envoy Richard Murphy back to the region for one last round of shuttle diplomacy before Peres relinquishes the premiership to Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir Oct. 14. By the time he left Tuesday for Canada, Peres had failed to win Shultz's agreement to another Murphy trip. He had also been forced to water down his own commitment to an international peace conference as the best way to settle Israel's disputes with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians.
Administration sources say Shultz was displeased that the main outcome of last week's Egypt-Israel summit was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's statement that he and Peres agreed on an international conference, involving all five members of the UN Security Council, as the proper venue for Mideast peace talks.
``At that stage, it seemed that this whole thing, seen through George Shultz's eyes, was heading down a road toward building up the Soviet side, without the Soviets having to pay a price,'' says one administration source.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with Peres Monday, Shultz substituted the term ``international forum'' for ``international conference.'' Peres reportedly assured Shultz that they agreed on the limited role which any international conference would play in peace talks. He said restoring diplomatic ties with Israel and easing restrictions on Soviet Jews were requirements for Soviet participation in an international conference.
``Perhaps there is a role for an international forum of some kind as a context for direct negotiations under the right circumstances,'' Shultz told reporters. ``But the indispensable element, and the point we must work on, is the achievement of direct negotiations.''
Such a statement is bound to please the hard-line Likud half of Israel's coalition government. But it is equally bound to anger Jordan's King Hussein, who has said that without Soviet participation in a substantive international conference, he cannot go forward.
Sources say Shultz is convinced there is little hope for progress toward peace talks because the Arabs, especially Jordan and Syria, are not ready. That assessment emerged from Murphy's recent Mideast visit,and makes another one soon unlikely, the sources say.
Peres's aides say a Murphy trip is needed to capitalize on understanding reached between Peres and Mubarak. The two came close to issuing a public statement, the Israelis say, in which Israel would have acknowledged that the solution to the Palestinian problem lies in a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation in the West Bank and Gaza. Such an agreement would be important because it would tacitly preclude Israeli claims to sovereignty over the lands it has occupied since 1967.
``We know the steps now are going to be small . . . that we've missed the opportunity for a dramatic breakthrough,'' a Peres aide says. ``But we want to continue to push for points of agreement between Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and for that we need the Americans.''
Peres would like to secure some accomplishment, however small, in his efforts to draw King Hussein toward talks before moving to the Foreign Ministry.
Peres has reiterated his intention to keep pushing for peace talks even after rotation. But both Israeli and US analysts see Peres's determination as aimed primarily at his domestic audience. Several Peres aides are convinced that his only hope of bringing down the government is to foster a genuine peace initiative that would drive Likud from the coalition, and prompt new elections. But the aides acknowledge that the prospects for such an occurrence appear to be dimming.