News Analysis: Hussein’s Gesture to Israel Marks One More Sign of the Changing Mideast

A flurry of dramatic diplomacy between Jordan and Israel, culminating in a summit next week in Washington between King Hussein and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, is being seen here as a bow by Hussein to the changing political realities of the Middle East.

Jordanians and Israeli broke long-held taboos this week as the first formal talks ever held in the region began in an effort to hammer out bilateral issues and pave the way for a peace agreement between the two nations.

The week’s diplomacy was to culminate in an unprecedented trilateral economic meeting scheduled for Wednesday at a Dead Sea resort in Jordan between Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Majali, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Christopher, making his fourth trip to the Middle East, was spending the week in the region primarily to revive moribund talks between Israel and Syria.

But all of this activity was considered merely a prelude to the main act next week in Washington, where Rabin and Hussein are scheduled to meet and to address a joint session of Congress.

Their summit was not expected to produce dramatic results, but it is being viewed as having critical symbolic significance.

“It is a breakthrough of the highest order,” Peres said. “It is a turning point in the Middle East.”

“This unprecedented event should usher in a new era in our relationship,” said Elyakim Rubinstein, head of the Israeli delegation to the talks with the Jordanians.

And the generally cautious Christopher was nearly ebullient when he spoke to reporters after meeting with Peres earlier this week.

“The Arab-Israeli conflict, one of the most longstanding and intractable conflicts of this entire century, is drawing to an end,” he said.

Hussein has met with Israeli leaders before, but only secretly.

‘A CLEAR DEMONSTRATION OF MOVEMENT’

The meeting is “a clear demonstration of movement, a way to energize and accelerate the progress between the two (countries) and to build the concrete forms (of) normal peaceful relations,” said a senior White House official at a background briefing in Washington last week.

The summit is seen as clear evidence that Hussein is determined to be a player in the regional peace process.

By meeting with Rabin, say observers, Hussein is demonstrating that he is unwilling to be marginalized by the autonomy deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and that he is undaunted by the threat of Syria’s disapproval or by the strong internal opposition he faces from extremist elements.

In fact, Syrian President Hafez Assad was reported to have reacted to the news of the summit transmitted in a courtesy phone call by President Clinton, by saying he was not happy with the news, but accepted it.

U.S. and Israeli officials clearly hope Hussein’s actions will have the effect of prodding Syria-forward in the peace talks with Israel.

But after a two-hour meeting with Assad in Damascus on Tuesday, Christopher returned to his usual cautious stance.

“We are still in the process of a very complicated negotiation,” he said, adding that little that could be seen as hopeful news.

In anticipation of the Christopher visit, Peres sent a signal to Assad last week underscoring Israel’s readiness to deal by pointedly declaring Israel’s recognition of Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Syria has repeatedly stated it will negotiate with Israel only if Israel firsts accepts the principle of full withdrawal from the Golan. Israel, in turn, has maintained that it wants agreement on the overall nature of an Israeli-Syrian peace before it makes any concessions on the Golan.

Their positions have been set in cement for months.

In Jordan, meanwhile, opposition parties have condemned the summit and reportedly proclaimed the days of Jordanian talks with Israel as days of mourning.

FEW EXPECT PEACE AGREEMENT FROM SUMMIT

For its part, Israel is seizing upon the developments with Jordan to reassure Hussein that he has not been sidelined by the agreement with the PLO and that Jordan plays a critical role in the overall regional peace process.

“For a while, after the agreement with the Palestinians, an impression could have been created that the Israeli-Jordanian track has been somewhat sidetracked,” Rubinstein said at the opening of the talks with Jordan this week.

“What we see now, this week and next week, attests to the contrary,” he added. “The relationship with Jordan has been central to Israel’s peace policy.”

Few expect next week’s summit to culminate in an Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement.

Hussein will “not be in a position to sign an agreement in Washington,” Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said this week.

“The gap between the Jordanian views and attitudes and ours is not a very big one,” he said, adding that it could be a matter of months before an agreement is signed “if they are ready to sign an agreement separately” from Syria.

Much attention has focused on the incentives the United States has held out to woo Hussein to the Washington summit with Rabin, including promises of relief for its $700 million debt as well as military aid.

But analysts say that is not the principal force driving Hussein to act now.

What is driving him, they say, is the need to protect the interests of his Hashemite Kingdom suddenly threatened by the successes of the PLO.

For Hussein, the stakes are high, “given Jordan’s proximity to the West Bank and its large Palestinian population,” said Asher Susser, head of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle East Studies.

“It was important for them to get back in (the peace process) at the highest levels and secure their own interests at the bilateral level to be able to influence their relationship with the emerging Palestinian entity,” Susser said.

Before the Palestinian self-rule accord was reached by Israel and the PLO, said one well-placed source who asked not to be identified, Jordan believed its interests were best served by joining a united front with Syria and Lebanon and allowing Syria to determine the pace of the negotiations.

But after the Israeli-PLO deal was made public, Hussein felt “abandoned and tricked” by Israel and the PLO, he said. Hussein was less inclined to stick with Syria because he saw “Syria couldn’t stop the PLO train,” he said.

Finally, Hussein’s fear of being left behind galvanized him into action after he witnessed PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s triumphant return to Gaza earlier this month and the virtual collapse of the PLO leader’s opposition there, said the source.

“The worst enemy of the Hashemite regime is the Palestinian nationalist movement,” said Dan Schueftan, a Jordan expert associated with Haifa University.

“If everybody recognizes the PLO as the sole, legitimate representative of the majority of your country, at least one regime in the East Bank is redundant,” said Schueftan, reflecting the widespread belief that Palestinians comprise the majority of Jordan’s population.

In fact, there are some in the Middle East who see Jordan, created in the 1920s, and the Hashemite Kingdom “as a passing phenomenon,” and this means Hussein’s “fundamental strategic concern is to consolidate the nation as a fixture in the region,” said one well-placed observer.

JORDAN FACES CHALLENGES FROM PALESTINIANS

Susser believes Jordan faces a challenge, but not an existential threat from the new political realities emerging in the region.

He said Hussein has reason to be concerned about the destabilizing prospect of Palestinian citizens on the East Bank torn by conflicting loyalties to the state of Jordan and to the national, PLO-led movement in the West Bank.

Susser thinks Hussein will seek to offset such a development by creating a partnership with the Palestinian entity. A confederation between the two, which gives Jordan influence over their relationship, would be “ideal” for Jordan, Susser said.

The discussions this week between Israel and Jordan focused primarily on the demarcation of borders, security and water rights.

On Tuesday, three teams of negotiators ended the two days of talks with a joint statement and news conference, the keynote of which was optimism tempered by the recognition that much work still remains to be done by the Israelis and Jordanians.

The news conference called by the two delegation heads — Israel’s Elyakim Rubinstein and Jordan’s Fayez al-Tarawneh — clearly showed the desire of both sides to demonstrate that progress was being made, although, in fact, little of real substance has yet been achieved.

Not officially on the table now, but very much on Hussein’s mind, was the question of who will have control of eastern Jerusalem.

Hussein views himself as responsible for the Muslim holy sites there and is clearly concerned about being edged out by the PLO.

In statements issued in recent days, Peres sent the message that Israel is open to finding a way to preserve Jordan’s connection to the holy places.

He also stated that Israel is committed to the continued existence of Hussein’s Hashemite Kingdom.

“We recognize the legitimacy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and while some have said Jordan is Palestine, I think Jordan is Jordan,” Peres stated.

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