WASHINGTON — The U.S. government, in the unaccustomed role of spectator instead of participant in Middle East negotiations, Tuesday hailed Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' visit to Morocco as a "historic opportunity" for peace in the region.
Although the United States was informed last week of the pending Israeli-Moroccan initiative, U.S. officials said that Washington played no part in bringing the two sides together. In a break with a decade-old tradition, no American mediator was present when Peres conferred with King Hassan II.
U.S. officials were enthusiastic about the meeting, which they hope will lead to face-to-face talks between Israel and Jordan.
Paving Way for Sadat
Hassan was instrumental in paving the way for the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977. Morocco, a North African state that shares no border with Israel, is on the periphery of the Arab-Israeli conflict while Jordan, which has lost territory to Israel, is central to the dispute.
Jordan's King Hussein, who would have to abandon his recent efforts to improve relations with Syria if he chose to open talks with Israel, has given no indication of his response to the Israeli-Moroccan talks.
U.S. officials were lavish in their praise of Hassan, who canceled a scheduled visit to Washington to play host to the Israeli prime minister. White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Hassan "has always played an important role in mediation in the Middle East."
2 Contradictory Goals
A State Department official, who asked not to be identified by name, said that in the past, Hassan has pursued two frequently contradictory objectives: furthering the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace and promoting Arab unity.
By welcoming Peres, Hassan stressed peace over unity. Syria angrily broke diplomatic relations with Morocco on Tuesday, and Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi said that Hassan's action virtually destroyed the 1984 treaty between Morocco and Libya--although that accord, providing for economic and political cooperation, never advanced beyond the theoretical level.
But the State Department official said the reaction from pro-Western Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan was "less negative than I would have expected."
Non-government experts in Arab relations called the Peres-Hassan meeting a positive development, but they cautioned that the path to more substantive talks is a difficult one.
Issue of West Bank
Richard B. Parker, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, said Jordan cannot afford to enter peace talks with Israel as long as the Jerusalem government refuses to even consider the return of part of the West Bank of the Jordan River to Arab sovereignty. Israel seized the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East War.
"Hassan does have some assets in terms of friendship with various Arab leaders, but the real question is whether he has more influence with the Israelis than the United States has," Parker said. "The question is not how much influence he has with other Arabs--it is how much influence he has with the Israelis."
Shireen T. Hunter, deputy director of the Middle East project at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Hussein has been reluctant to join direct talks with Israel because he has concluded that the risks outweigh the chances for gain.
Ever since Henry A. Kissinger mediated the cease-fire agreements that ended the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, the United States has played a key role in most Mideast negotiations. The U.S. activity reached its high point in 1978 and 1979 with the Camp David talks and the subsequent Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
But earlier this year, after the collapse of Hussein's efforts to draw the Palestine Liberation Organization into the peace process, the United States virtually gave up on the chances for early progress. A senior Administration official quipped that, although the peace process may not be dead, "it is in suspended animation."