LONDON — Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres held private talks with British leaders Wednesday, then appealed publicly for new movement in the Middle East peace process before the opportunity for a settlement passes.
"The atmosphere of peace is a very perishable commodity," Peres said to the Royal Institute of International Affairs. "If negotiations reach an impasse, time will not stand still."
Warning that the mood in Israel could change quickly, he urged Jordan's King Hussein to agree to direct talks immediately. If necessary, he said, such talks could come within the framework of an international conference that could include the United States and the Soviet Union.
Addressing Hussein, Peres said, "Let us not consign this moment to the fate of missed opportunity."
The prime minister's remarks reflected a key goal of his three-nation European tour: to rally support that might advance the search for Mideast peace before he hands over power in October to his hard-line coalition partner, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, leader of the hard-line Likud Bloc.
Those promoting peace negotiations between Israel and her Arab neighbors believe that progress would be more difficult to achieve under Shamir.
"The year 1986 is crucial," Peres said. "It is perhaps the best year for peace. If the opportunity is wasted, it might never return."
Peres spoke on the first full day of his most important European stop. He arrived in London on Tuesday night from the Netherlands and is scheduled to stop in Bonn before returning home.
Britain--which has a long, historic involvement in the Mideast--maintains close ties with Jordan. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is said to have a good relationship with Hussein, who Peres reportedly believes holds the key to a Mideast settlement.
Earlier in the day, Peres met for 90 minutes with Thatcher, accompanied only by their note-takers. He also had talks with Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe.
Howe recently returned from a tour of three relatively moderate Arab states--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman--where he was reportedly struck by a deepening sense of frustration at the lack of progress toward negotiations and a growing concern that further delay would only benefit extremists.
Peres' meetings in London come six days after Thatcher met privately with Hussein in London during a personal visit by the Jordanian monarch to Britain.
Speculation that the two Mideast leaders might meet secretly in Britain was quashed when Hussein departed 12 hours before Peres arrived Tuesday.
British Foreign Office officials have tried to dampen expectations surrounding Peres' visit, and the likelihood of any breakthrough here remains remote.
Thatcher's last attempt to bridge the distance between Hussein and the Israelis collapsed in October, when the Palestinian members of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation she invited to London walked out hours before their first meeting.
The three Palestinians, all members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, left after refusing to support a joint statement that included recognition of Israel's right to exist. British diplomats said the PLO men backed away from the statement at the last minute. The Palestinians charge that Britain tried to insert the wording at the last minute.
While Hussein and Peres have both agreed to direct talks, they differ on who should be permitted to represent the Palestinians. The Israelis say that only moderate Palestinians who have rejected violence should be at the negotiating table. Hussein insists on a PLO presence.