JERUSALEM -- Welcoming remarks by Jordan's King Hussein that he endorsed "face-to-face" negotiations, Israel's foreign minister invited the king to travel to Jerusalem for peace talks and expressed his willingness yesterday to attend talks in Jordan.
Foreign Minister David Levy, promising the king "a red carpet and a band," made the offer after interpreting comments attributed to the king as evidence that a breakthrough in Middle East peace efforts was possible.
"This is a hopeful sign and from his side a courageous statement," Mr. Levy said. "We welcome it, and I invite him to come to Jerusalem."
Mr. Levy was reacting to an interview in which the king is quoted as saying that "taboos must disappear," including the long-standing reluctance of most Arab leaders to meet with their Israeli counterparts. King Hussein's comments were released Saturday by the French news magazine Le Point.
'We shouldn't torture our minds because we think we have to meet with everybody," the king is quoted as saying. "It is too early to speak about it, but I think this should happen soon. These face-to-face contacts ought to allow us all to dissipate our fears."
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said he had not decided whether to issue a formal invitation in the name of Israel's government. He described the king's remarks as"surprising" but said that there had no been no direct contacts between the two countries.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Taher al-Masri played down the chance that King Hussein would accept Israel's invitation, Reuters reported yesterday from Amman, Jordan.
"I will have to see the text [of the king's statements], but I can tell you that what is meant is not jumping to Jerusalem with the Israelis," Mr. Masri said. "The peace process and reaching agreement is much deeper than one statement here and one statement there," he said.
Jordan and other Arab countries want peace talks to be held on the basis of Israel's trading occupied Arab territory, including the West Bank captured from Jordan in 1967, for peace guarantees. Israel rejects the peace-for-land idea.
King Hussein repeated the message he has given Jordanian audiences on several occasions since the end of the Persian Gulf war, emphasizing the need for states in the region to give up their old patterns of behavior.
The king has been motivated to act in part by serious economic problems at home. When King Hussein failed condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Jordan was deprived of oil supplies and economic aid from Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Jordan was flooded with jobless workers returning from the gulf.
The king's remarks were the subject of headlines yesterday in the Israeli press and became one of the main topics at the regular weekly meeting of the Cabinet.
Mr. Levy emerged from the meeting sounding untypically optimistic about the chances for peace talks:
"There is absolutely no reason to put if off any longer," Mr. Levy said. "Any leader of any nation neighboring us who expresses this will find Israel blessing him and ready to meet him at any moment, and at any time, without delay.
"So if King Hussein has expressed such a stand, then he's invited to Jerusalem."
Much of the commotion is due to the king's special status. The king emerged from the gulf war as the one figure acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians, who have agreed on little else about a formula for regional peace talks.
The king's potential role as a go-between has also been recognized by the United States. After initially snubbing the him, Secretary of States James A. Baker III, during his four trips to the region since March, warmly praised King Hussein for his flexibility.
U.S. officials see King Hussein as the likely key to getting Israel's agreement to negotiate with a delegation of Palestinians at any talks. Israeli officials say they might accept a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, a formulation that would give the king a leading role.
Israeli officials assume that the larger the king's role, the less place there will be for the Palestine Liberation Organization -- with which Israel refuses to negotiate.
King Hussein has said he might agree to such a delegation, and he has carefully refrained from mentioning his need for advance approval from the PLO. His willingness to go forward has been one of the few signs that Mr. Baker has indeed made progress.
"We have the feeling that something important is happening," a Foreign Ministry official said. "Hussein is a survivor. He wouldn't take any risks without having checked all the consequences."
Commentators in the Israeli news media looked for similarities between the king's comments and the first steps taken by former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who flew to Israel in 1977 and later agreed to a formal peace treaty.
If King Hussein accepted an invitation to Jerusalem, he would not be meeting Israeli officials for the first time. The king is known to have met secretly with several Israeli prime ministers and ministers of defense over a period of more than 25 years.
He was widely reported to have met with then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in 1987. The two agreed on a formula for peace talks, an agreement later scuttled by the Israeli Cabinet.