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News Analysis: a Jordanian-plo Wedge May Be Useful, but It’s Too Late to Dislodge Arafat

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“Let them argue for a hundred years.”

This was the spirited though off-the-record comment offered this week by a senior Israeli policy-maker — and pronounced political dove — in response to reports of ongoing tension between Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the wake of last week’s Israeli-Jordanian summit in Washington.

This official, like other well-placed Israelis, does not deny that the thought of “driving a wedge” between Jordan and the PLO did indeed cross the minds of Israeli decision-makers during the recent, hectic weeks in which the Washington Declaration with Jordan took shape.

But the belief that Israeli policymakers both anticipated and are pleased by this inter-Arab friction is a far cry from the theory, aired by some commentators in the region and abroad, that Israel may be seeking to displace the PLO with Jordan in the ongoing peace process.

To a certain degree, a wedge has indeed been driven: The Palestinians have been angered by a paragraph in the declaration in which Israel recognized Jordan’s special role as guardian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.

In the Washington Declaration, which officially ended 46 years of conflict between Israel and Jordan, Israel agreed to give “high priority to the Jordanian historic role” at these Muslim holy shrines during the final-status negotiations on the territories that are scheduled to begin in two years.

But PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat continues to insist that his organization, which he regards as the harbinger of an eventual Palestinian state, should have primacy over both the Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem.

Clearly disturbed by last week’s developments, Arafat called for immediate negotiations with Israel on the status of Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM IS NOT THE ISSUE NOW

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, citing the declaration of principles signed last September in Washington, said the Jerusalem issue was not to be the subject of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations until two years after the implementation of self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho.

But chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath responded that the declaration of principles explicitly stated that the final-status negotiations, which include the issue of Jerusalem, should begin “as soon as possible and not later than the beginning of the third year” from the start of Palestinian self-rule.

As Israeli and Palestinian officials traded their disagreements about the timing for Jerusalem negotiations, the Palestinians and Jordanians were engaged in delicate diplomacy designed to defuse growing tensions over this potentially explosive issue.

At the same time, it is apparent that Israeli leaders recognize the importance of dealing with Arafat and the Palestinians.

“Arafat is the partner,” Rabin stated repeatedly during his triumphant trip to Washington last week to sign the Washington Declaration. He may not have said this with relish, and he indeed was more comfortable with Hussein than he had been with Arafat. But comfort is not the issue.

Neither Rabin nor any other major player on the Israeli side is seriously contemplating any prospect of dislodging the PLO in favor of Jordan as Israel’s negotiating partner in the future stages of Palestinian self-government.

Rabin, despite any qualms, does daily diplomatic business with Arafat and meets the PLO chief from time to time when the need arises.

He has not changed his core belief, voiced countless times since September, that the success of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians will depend ultimately on the PLO’s success in gradually taking hold of the reins of government in the territories.

Jordan’s place in that scheme is, at most, peripheral during the five-year transitional period. But it could become more central when the final status of the territories — and their relationship with Jordan — is negotiated.

Israelis, of whatever political stripe, understand that Hussein would not — and perhaps could not — have moved toward the Washington Declaration until the Palestinian problem had been addressed in the declaration of principles and in the subsequent agreements for implementing Palestinian autonomy.

This is not to say that the breakthrough with Jordan has not occasioned a great deal of historical soul-searching.

Both in the Labor Party and in Likud there is much quiet thinking about what might have been had Israel reacted differently to various diplomatic opportunities that were presented in the past.

JORDAN-PLO STRAINS USEFUL

These include former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s proposal for a separation of forces agreement with Jordan in 1974 (which was rejected by Rabin, who was prime minister at the time) and the Hussein-Peres “London Agreement” of April 1987 on terms for an international peace conference (which was foiled by then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Likud).

Following the 1974 rejection by Rabin, the Arab world resolved at a summit conference to recognize the PLO as sole representative of the Palestinians. And not long after the 1987 episode, the Palestinian uprising broke out.

But historical hindsight, like personal comfort, is not the stuff of practical, here-and-now policy making, they say.

The “Jordanian option,” long advocated by senior Israeli leaders from both major parties as an alternative to dealing with the PLO, is dead.

The Jordan-PLO strains over Jerusalem are convenient for Israel — particularly because of the Israel-PLO deadlock over Jerusalem’s future.

Both sides bring to this conflict unswerving political positions, with Israel insisting on a unified city under its own exclusive sovereignty and the PLO advocating a city physically united but politically split into two capitals.

Jordan’s readiness to accept this distinction between guardianship of religious sites and political sovereignty lets Israel show its flexibility and respect for Muslim feelings without weakening its own claim to exclusive sovereignty over Jerusalem.

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