NEW YORK — Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met for more than an hour with Secretary of State George P. Shultz on Saturday, hoping to shore up American support for the Middle East peace proposal that forms the foundation of his campaign to force new elections back home.
It was a delicate political maneuver for Peres, the leader of the centrist Labor Alignment and former prime minister, who wants to tell Israeli voters that the United States supports his position without appearing to invite American interference in internal Israeli politics.
"We don't have any intention whatsoever to involve the American Administration in our domestic politics," Uri Savir, Peres' spokesman, told reporters.
But he said the United States should reaffirm its support for "an American proposal" for an international peace conference that could clear the way for direct negotiations between Israel and Jordan.
Peres supports such a conference while Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, his political rival and head of the rightist Likud Bloc in Israel's fragile "national unity" coalition government, is firmly opposed.
The Peres-Shultz meeting, which preceded a black tie testimonial dinner marking the 100th birthday of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, was an awkward one for Shultz. Although the secretary of state has repeatedly endorsed the idea of a Middle East peace conference, he wants to avoid the appearance of taking sides in Israeli politics.
"This is a no-win situation for us," a State Department official said "We are going to be ripped up no matter what we say. We would prefer not to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole."
Peres sought last week week to force new Israeli elections about a year ahead of schedule to let the voters decide between Labor and Likud on the emotional issue of the Peres peace initiative. But he was unable to put together the majority in the Knesset (Parliament) that is required to order new elections ahead of their present schedule in October, 1988.
Aides who accompanied Peres to the United States predicted that the present hybrid government in which Shamir and Peres agreed to share power will fall before summer with new elections coming sometime this fall.
Peres was the keynote speaker at the Ben-Gurion dinner, at which Shultz was presented with a peace award commemorating Israel's founding father.
The dinner gave Peres, a former protege of Ben-Gurion, a chance to direct his appeal to both the Reagan Administration and to the U.S. Jewish community. He wants the backing of both in his campaign to force new elections.
He was lavish in his public praise of Shultz.
"In a way, George Shultz is a disappointment to the state of Israel because we were trained to having secretaries of state we can attack," Peres said. "Here we have a secretary of state, thank God, and there is nothing we can complain about."
He devoted most of the rest of his speech to a series of anecdotes about Ben-Gurion. Although seemingly nonpolitical, the speech underlined Peres' relationship with a man who most American supporters of Israel consider a hero.
Shultz is scheduled to appear on NBC-TV's program "Meet the Press" today. Later in the day he is scheduled to address the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and meet again with Shultz.
After months of U.S. mediation, Jordan's King Hussein agreed to make some subtle changes in his longstanding proposal for a Middle East peace conference to meet some Israeli objections. Peres called Hussein's concessions a "breakthrough," but Shamir rejected the conference idea because he said it would draw the Soviet Union into the Middle East diplomatic picture and because it might force Israel to give up sovereignty over the West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza Strip, which it captured in the Six-Day War of 1967.
State Department officials say the United States cannot disown the conference idea, which followed a Jerusalem-Amman shuttle by Wat T. Cluverius IV, the Administration's peace negotiator.
"The whole issue in American eyes should not be a Labor-Likud issue, that's our matter," Savir said in outlining the Peres-Shultz meeting. "It should be seen as an Arab-Israel issue and what you (the United States) can do to promote the peace process. It is up to you to decide what you want to do about the peace process."