JERUSALEM — In a dramatic development that officials here have said could give a major boost to the Mideast peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres flew to Morocco on Monday for a summit meeting with King Hassan II, according to high government sources.
While news of the trip was still being kept under official wraps here Monday night, the sources said that Peres was accompanied by representatives of Israel radio and television and that it is intended that his meeting with the Moroccan leader will be made public. Early today, Israeli radio reported the prime minister's trip, which is expected to last 48 hours.
Although there have been several secret visits by Israeli leaders to Arab nations, Morocco is only the second Arab country to openly receive an Israeli head of state. The first was Egypt, with which Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979.
Expected Within Hours
Israel radio reported this morning that the Peres-Hassan talks were expected to start within hours. However, in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, diplomatic sources quoted by the Associated Press said Peres flew directly to the king's private airfield near Ifrane, 100 miles east of the capital, and immediately began talks with Hassan at the monarch's summer palace there Monday evening.
Israel and Morocco are technically in a state of war, but high government sources here said that King Hassan, with American encouragement, is attempting to mediate between Israel and Jordan and revive the peace process.
Last February, Jordan broke with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, and earlier this month, it closed the Amman offices of Fatah, the mainstream PLO faction headed by Arafat.
The break ended a yearlong Jordanian-PLO diplomatic offensive aimed at negotiating the creation of a Palestinian entity, in association with Jordan, on what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in exchange for peace.
The initiative failed, according to Jordan, when Arafat reneged on his agreement to publicly accept United Nations resolutions recognizing Israel's existence as a precondition for any talks.
Despite that failure, Jordan's King Hussein stressed in a meeting with American correspondents last week that "we are not going to stop" the search for peace. And he stressed the need for Palestinians on the West Bank to back his moves.
Coincident with Peres' trip, Jordan radio reported Monday that a Moroccan envoy had arrived in Amman for meetings with government officials. Government sources here discouraged speculation that Hussein might join Peres and Hassan in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, however.
Hussein had telephone conversations Monday with three Arab leaders, state-run Jordan television reported, but the reason for the contacts was not revealed. According to the broadcast, Hussein received a message from Mohammed Award, special adviser to the Moroccan king, then spoke to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, President Hafez Assad of Syria and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
In Tunis, Tunisia, the PLO reacted unfavorably to the Peres trip. "I cannot imagine Shimon Peres in Morocco," said the PLO spokesman. "That is my statement."
The government sources said Peres received an invitation from Hassan more than a week ago and that the trip was cleared with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is also alternate premier in Israel's national unity government and head of the rightist Likud Bloc.
Last week, Hassan announced the indefinite postponement of a scheduled official visit to Washington, giving ill health as an excuse. It appears that he actually needed the time to prepare for Peres' visit.
One government source noted that it was Hassan who played a key mediating role in the talks that led to the historic 1977 meeting in Jerusalem between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and eventually to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
Last November, Hassan told French journalists during an interview in Rabat that he would be willing to meet Peres if the Israeli leader had a "serious" peace plan to discuss.
Peres' spokesman, Uri Savir, quickly confirmed at the time that there had been an "exchange of messages" with the Moroccan leader and that Peres "would be glad to meet with the king." He said a meeting between the two leaders "could be a great boost" to the Mideast peace process.
The enthusiastic and public Israeli reception apparently put Hassan off, however, and the next day he publicly withdrew his offer.
The experience of eight months ago was one reason for official concern here about premature publicity surrounding Peres' trip.
As late as 6 p.m. Monday, Savir's office was still telling callers that he and the prime minister were on their way to the official rollout of Israel's new Lavi jet fighter, scheduled for two hours later.
Actually, according to government sources, both Peres and Savir had already left for Morocco aboard a private jet which took off from an air base in central Israel.