JERUSALEM — Austrian President Kurt Waldheim's visit to Jordan, which might have been expected to raise an outcry here, echoing the one occasioned by his trip to Rome last month, has instead been greeted with official silence, apparently rooted in domestic politics and secret Middle East peace maneuvers.
Waldheim, who is at the center of a controversy involving charges that he was involved in the deportation of Jews to German death camps during World War II, arrived in Amman on Wednesday for a four-day visit. Jordan is the first nation, outside of the Vatican, to entertain Waldheim officially since his election as president a year ago.
Waldheim served in the German army (Austria had been annexed by Nazi Germany), but he has denied that he had any part in transporting Jews to the death camps. Some Arabs contend that the real reason for Israel's anti-Waldheim position is his consistent advocacy of Palestinian rights.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Waldheim's visit to Pope Paul II caused Israel "great anguish." Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said it would "jeopardize relations between the Jews and the church."
But so far the only official reaction here to Waldheim's enthusiastic reception in Jordan was an off-the-record comment by an anonymous official who said, "We certainly think that any country that welcomes him right now is not taking the right step."
Neither Shamir nor Peres has made any public statement on the visit, and spokesmen for both refused to comment again Friday, despite some angry editorial comment by the country's newspapers over the continued official silence.
The Jerusalem Post said: "Surely the least that Jerusalem should have told Amman this week is that the Waldheim visit is irreconcilable with the possibility of improving ties between Israel and Jordan. One Cabinet minister did make that suggestion at a ministerial meeting two days ago. His name is Ariel Sharon (a minister without portfolio representing Shamir's rightist Likud Bloc), and he deserves an accolade for it. But it was not adopted. Mr. Shamir turned it down, while Mr. Peres kept his thoughts to himself. Apologies, it seems, are due the Pope."
Israel and Jordan are still technically at war, but in fact they cooperate to a considerable degree in administering the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. Moreover, King Hussein has met secretly with Peres at least once this year, in London in April, to pursue a proposal for an international conference on peace in the Middle East.
Peres, who heads the centrist Labor Alignment, and Shamir are in the midst of a bitter fight over the conference proposal, and the fight threatens to shatter the agreement that binds their respective parties in Israel's government of national unity. That both have chosen nonetheless to play down King Hussein's invitation to Waldheim is seen here as a coincidence of tactics.
The visit clearly undermines Peres' effort to convince a divided Israeli public that Hussein is a legitimate partner for peace talks--talks that could ultimately involve the sacrifice of some of the territory Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and defended in the bloodier war of 1973.
Peres was embarrassed by Waldheim's visit to Jordan, according to Akiva Eldar, political and diplomatic correspondent of the independent Hebrew-language newspaper Haaretz. Nevertheless, Eldar said in an interview, the foreign minister "doesn't want to attack Hussein" for fear of further jeopardizing the peace process.
The Jerusalem Post agreed with this view. It said in an editorial Friday that "Mr. Peres has staked his own reputation and his party's fortunes in the next Knesset (Parliament) election on winning the hearts and minds of Israelis for peace through direct negotiations (with Jordan) to be held within the framework of an international conference."
The Post said that Peres' "thunderous silence" was incomprehensible in light of Hussein's welcome for Waldheim.
For Shamir, who violently opposes an international peace conference, Waldheim's visit to Jordan appears to be a windfall. But while sources close to the prime minister gloated Friday that it is "another nail in the coffin" of the peace conference idea, they said he is content for the time being to let others point that out.
This approach is in keeping with Shamir's reputation as a low-key but sometimes brutally effective political fighter.
"It's one of his forms of maneuvering," an associate said.
Also, there was speculation Friday that Shamir might be avoiding any move that might add to the tension between him and Peres on the eve of a crucial Cabinet decision concerning Israel's controversial Lavi jet fighter project. If there is any chance of a compromise to save the multibillion-dollar project, Shamir will need Peres' support.