JERUSALEM — The Israeli government edged closer to a showdown on the issue of a Middle East peace conference Sunday as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres formally notified Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he intends to bring a conference plan to the Cabinet on Wednesday.
In Jordan, meanwhile, Prime Minister Zaid Rifai, in an apparent challenge to the Israeli leadership, said it is futile to continue preparations for such a conference without an Israeli commitment to participate.
Rifai was quoted Sunday night in a Jordanian television news broadcast that was monitored in Israel.
His statement followed reports by Israeli government sources late last week that Jordan has agreed to bilateral peace negotiations with Israel in the context of a Middle East conference. The agreement would require that the Israeli government formally approve a U.S.-brokered framework for the talks worked out after months of shuttle diplomacy, the sources said.
The extent of Jordan's commitment to the American plan was unclear from Rifai's statement.
While he said specifically that "reports about agreements and contacts recently made are untrue," he also outlined key positions on an international conference that correspond with the earlier Israeli reports.
Asked to comment on Rifai's remarks, a senior official close to Peres said Sunday night: "It's an encouraging statement, and, I think, evidence for progress. We, too, are of the opinion that Israel has to take a decision now."
Threat to Coalition
Peres and Shamir are at odds on the conference issue, and if it is brought to a Cabinet vote, it could break up the fragile coalition government joining their two major parties.
A meeting between the two men originally scheduled for Sunday was postponed until Tuesday. But a Peres spokesman confirmed that the foreign minister sent a letter to Shamir announcing that he will raise the issue Wednesday before senior government ministers in the so-called "inner Cabinet."
The inner Cabinet is composed of five ministers each from Peres' centrist Labor Alignment and Shamir's rightist Likud Bloc. A tie vote would mean defeat for Peres' proposal, in which case he has said he would pull out of the government and take the issue to the people in new elections.
Could Avert Showdown
It's still possible that the two leaders may reach some agreement to avert a showdown at their Tuesday meeting. Also, Peres' spokesman said that even if the proposal is brought as planned to the Cabinet, there may not be an immediate vote. However, Peres is due to leave for the United States on May 13, and the spokesman said it is expected that the climax will come before then.
Officials here also caution that even if Israel and Jordan agree on the American framework for a peace conference, there would remain several other hurdles to cross before such a conference could begin and even more imposing barriers to an actual peace agreement.
The American plan that Peres intends to bring to the Cabinet is based on a 10-point plan of his own, first proposed several months ago.
While details of the plan have never been fully revealed, it reportedly calls for the secretary general of the United Nations to invite the five permanent members of the Security Council and concerned Middle East parties to a conference aimed at developing a comprehensive regional peace.
The conference would serve as a prelude to bilateral negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors within the framework of independent committees. The bilateral committees would include Jordan-Israel, Syria-Israel and Lebanon-Israel. Progress in any bilateral committee would not hinge on progress in the others.
Meeting Called 'Trap'
Shamir repeated his opposition to an international conference in an interview published Sunday by the independent newspaper Maariv. It would turn into "a trap" in which "Israel will be up against the whole world," he said.
Jordan's King Hussein has long insisted that he would not enter negotiations with Israel without some form of international sanction that would lend legitimacy to the talks.
Among the key outstanding differences that previously blocked agreement on a conference were questions about Palestinian representation, the powers of the Security Council members and the participation of the Soviet Union and China--neither of which have diplomatic relations with Israel.
However, American officials said last week that they have made substantial progress in closing the gaps, and Israeli sources claimed that Peres and King Hussein have reached a tentative agreement on the key points.
The Israeli sources said Jordan has agreed to put together a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation that will not include members of the
PLO Not Mentioned
They said that although the PLO is not mentioned specifically in the document, it does say that participation in the conference is conditional on renunciation of violence and terrorism and acceptance of U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, which acknowledge Israel's right to exist.