JERUSALEM — Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Wednesday that King Hussein of Jordan has come to a "strategic decision" to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state but that some key elements have not yet been agreed upon despite intensive negotiations.
"I don't know what's holding him up," Peres said of the king. "There are still dozens of subjects that must be clarified and agreed upon, but I think strategically the king has decided."
With speculation widespread here that Hussein will join Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a White House meeting Friday afternoon with President Clinton, Peres cautioned that more time is required for negotiations.
"This is one of those things that require more exacting preparations," Peres told Israel Radio, dismissing reports that he and Hussein initialed a peace agreement during a rumored nightlong secret meeting in the Jordanian capital, Amman, last week. "Everything comes in its proper time, but that time has not come yet."
The main sticking point, according to Israeli sources, is Hussein's demand for a role in the guardianship of Islamic holy places in Jerusalem. Although Israel has agreed with the Palestine Liberation Organization to discuss the future of Jerusalem in two years, the Rabin government insists that the city remain united as "the eternal capital of the Jewish people."
The second key issue, these well-placed sources said, is Hussein's willingness to proceed on a formal peace agreement with Israel ahead of Syria. After his meeting with Hussein in Amman last week, Peres believes he is willing, according to these sources, but the king wants assurances on Jerusalem first, and Rabin so far is reluctant to give them.
"We are close, very close, but not there yet," a senior Israeli official commented. "It could come quickly, or it might take a number of further meetings. Hussein has made his basic decision, but implementing it will take time."
Putting Peres' caution aside, two other Israeli Cabinet members--Environment Minister Yossi Sarid and Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer--predicted major developments shortly in Middle East peace negotiations.
Speaking for the government, Sarid told the Israeli Parliament in a formal statement: "In the peace process, additional developments may be expected in the very near future, and in my judgment they will be very positive."
Ben-Eliezer, a former general who is close to Rabin, described the signing of a peace pact with Jordan as simply a matter of time, essentially a Jordanian decision and one that Hussein is prepared to make.
And Israeli political sources, some close to Peres, others to Rabin, said late Wednesday that intensive diplomatic efforts are being made to arrange a meeting between Rabin and Hussein while both are in the United States over the next week.
"Israel would like to see an agreement with Jordan and a meeting between Prime Minister Rabin and King Hussein as soon as possible," Oded Ben-Ami, a top Rabin aide, said. "But fruits have to be ripe to be eaten before they are plucked."
Rabin left for Washington on Wednesday evening, a trip that apparently was lengthened to ensure that it overlapped with Hussein's visit to the United States.
But Clinton told a Washington press conference that a Rabin-Hussein meeting is not likely Friday. "I am delighted by reports of progress in relationships between Israel and Jordan. . . . But I don't think anything will happen Friday," he said.
In Amman, Jordanian Information Minister Man abu Nuwar said that "all this is news to us." Hussein told a press conference Tuesday that he will not sign a pact before Syria does, the minister added.
Yet the Israeli press, apparently briefed by senior government officials, reported in detail the terms of the expected agreement with Jordan.
The newspaper Maariv, providing the most detailed account, said Israel will cede parts of the Dead Sea and nearby desert to Jordan, settling old border disputes, and then lease them back at a nominal price; that cooperation will be worked out for transport, tourism and agriculture; that Israel will use its influence to get Jordan's foreign debts reduced, and that Israel will extend its defense shield to Jordan.
"This is something for negotiation, and I wouldn't jump to put the cart before the horse," Peres said, not denying most of the Maariv report but suggesting that it was premature. He did reject outright, however, the suggestions that Israel will include Jordan within its defense perimeter.
Other press accounts said agreements have been reached on highways running from Amman to Jerusalem through the West Bank town of Jericho and between the Red Sea ports of Eilat, Aqaba and probably Taba in Egypt, as well as on linking the electrical power grids of Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories.