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Hussein Backs Peres, but is It a Boost or a Blow for Labor?

Little more than a week before the Knesset elections, the big question being asked in Israel is whether Jordan’s King Hussein gave a boost or a blow to the Labor Party’s chances when he appeared on an American television program Thursday night to virtually endorse Labor’s approach to a peace settlement.

The same question also applies to the tripartite Arab summit meeting of Hussein, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat, timed to coincide, it would seem, with the peak of the political campaign in Israel.

The three met Saturday and Sunday in the Jordanian town of Aqaba on the Red Sea, within hailing distance of the Israeli border. The three apparently agreed to cooperate in the pursuit of peace with Israel, but the details of their talks were not disclosed.

Hussein himself, interviewed on ABC-TV’s “Nightline” program Thursday, told host Ted Koppel that the ideas of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and his Labor Party are promising.

But a continuation of the policies of Premier Yitzhak Shamir, leader of the Likud bloc, would be an “absolute disaster,” the Jordanian monarch said.

Peres was interviewed on the same show.

Likud swiftly fired a counter-barrage. Shamir expressed “regret and displeasure” over what he called “an effort to mix in foreign factors in the Israeli election campaign.”

‘CAUSES DAMAGE TO ISRAEL’

He said “the enlistment of Hussein is an unprecedented step. It shows a lack of national self-respect … It causes damage to Israel.”

It is not clear yet — and may not be until the election results are in — whether most Israelis share Shamir’s resentment or think Peres is on the right track.

The immediate reaction was not encouraging to Labor. Some commentators, including pro-Labor figures, tended to agree with Shamir, especially after Koppel revealed that some of Peres’ aides had helped arrange the Hussein interview.

Laborites claimed that this demonstrated the extent of unofficial contacts between Peres and Hussein, which ought to please intelligent voters.

They also claimed that Hussein’s remarks refuted Likud’s mocking references to Peres’ “Jordanian option” as dead and buried.

In his taped interview, Hussein made clear he was prepared to negotiate with Israel alongside Palestinians in a joint delegation.

He also reiterated his endorsement of the London, with American participation, on the modalities of an international conference for Middle East peace.

Those surely were reassuring words for Peres, whose “Jordanian option” lost credibility when Hussein severed Jordan’s administrative links with West Bank Palestinians during the summer. The king seemed then to wash his hands of the whole problem.

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