WASHINGTON — A senior member of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's political party warned the Reagan Administration and members of Congress on Monday that a proposed Mideast peace conference would increase Soviet influence in the region and drive a wedge between the United States and Israel.
"I understand why the Russians and the Arabs want an international conference," Dan Meridor, a member of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), said in an interview. "What I fail to understand is why some of us--Israelis and Americans--do not realize that this would be a 180-degree reversal of the course of the last 20 years."
Meridor, who served as chief government spokesman for former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and for Shamir during his first term as prime minister, was in Washington to confer with Richard W. Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, and key members of Congress.
He said that he hopes to convince the U.S. officials that Secretary of State George P. Shultz blundered last month when he said that the most effective avenue to peace in the Middle East might be a conference attended by Israel, its Arab neighbors and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council--the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China.
"It is a needless exercise that will do nothing but hurt us," Meridor said.
Meridor said the proposed conference would give a tremendous boost to an effort by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to increase Moscow's influence in the Middle East.
He said earlier that elements of that effort included rescheduling of Egyptian and Syrian debts, encouraging Syria and Iraq to smooth over longstanding differences and offering naval protection to Kuwaiti shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Moscow's objective, he said, seems to be developing pro-Soviet Arab unity while Washington has sought to build a base among pro-Western Arab nations such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia while keeping radical states such as Syria at arm's length.
Meridor expressed dismay at remarks Sunday in Venice by White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. that it was "not a bad thing" for Moscow to join Washington in trying to protect gulf shipping from possible Iranian attacks. The Baker comment appeared to be a sharp reversal of policy after earlier efforts by Shultz and other officials to minimize the Soviet role in the gulf.
The idea of a Middle East peace conference, originally proposed by Jordan's King Hussein, has become a major political issue in Israel.
Shamir, leader of the right-wing Likud Bloc, is firmly opposed to the plan. However, Shimon Peres, leader of the centrist Labor Alignment and the foreign minister in Israel's coalition government, has endorsed the proposal and is working actively to force new elections in which the conference would be the most important issue separating the parties.
Shultz, speaking a few hours after Peres to American supporters of Israel during a conference in Washington on May 17, said it was time "to look carefully at the idea of an international conference. . . . The answers are worth working through even if this idea fails."
The speech was widely interpreted both in Israel and the United States as siding with Peres against Shamir.
Seeds of Conflict
But Meridor argued that, in a sometimes overlooked segment of his speech, Shultz sowed the seeds of a U.S. conflict with Israel, regardless of which party is in power.
In his speech, Shultz said that the United States would "take to the (conference) table as our view" the elements of President Reagan's Middle East peace initiative of Sept. 1, 1982. That plan called for a Palestinian "entity" on the West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza Strip in confederation with Jordan.
Begin immediately rejected that plan as a "mortal danger" to Israel. Although Labor was not as vehement as the Likud in its opposition to the Reagan plan, it objected to some elements of the proposal.