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Netanyahu-hussein Meeting Focuses New Attention on Syria

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Hussein of Jordan met face to face this week in Amman, but much of their attention turned to Damascus.

“We are prepared to engage in peace negotiations with Syria on all matters,” Netanyahu told reporters after meeting with Hussein in his first official visit to the Hashemite kingdom since his election as prime minister.

During a joint news conference Monday with Hussein, the prime minister said he had conveyed a proposal to the Syrians for restarting the talks, which were suspended March 4 when Syria failed to condemn a series of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.

Israel and Syria had been sounding each other out on the prospects for restarting negotiations even before Netanyahu visited the Jordanian capital.

Hussein served as intermediary for the two sides when he met Saturday with Syrian President Hafez Assad for five hours to discuss ways to renew the negotiations.

There were also reports that Netanyahu secretly met with a Syrian envoy last month in Jerusalem, but both Israel and Syria denied there had been any such contact.

Netanyahu said Monday that he was encouraged by the briefing he received from Hussein on the monarch’s weekend visit to Damascus.

The message Hussein conveyed from Damascus “shows that President Assad plans to continue seeking peace with the current Israeli government,” Netanyahu told Israel Radio.

“This is a positive development,” Netanyahu also said.

Netanyahu said he is waiting for a response to a proposal Israel presented to Syria last Friday via American intermediaries.

He would not elaborate on details of the Israeli proposal, but there have been numerous reports that Israel was offering a “Lebanon First” arrangement, under which it would pull its troops out of southern Lebanon in exchange for the dismantling of Hezbollah units operating there.

In the absence of agreement on larger issues — particularly the long-standing Syrian demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights as a precondition for achieving a full peace — Israeli officials have indicated that a Lebanon First agreement could be a good starting point for building mutual trust before tackling more difficult issues.

As he has often stated since becoming premier, Netanyahu said Monday that Israel had no territorial claims on southern Lebanon, where, he said, “there has been a steady escalation of violence.”

As if to underscore his point, there were reports that day that Hezbollah gunmen attacked an Israeli outpost in southern Lebanon, wounding two soldiers. The soldiers, who suffered minor injuries, were airlifted to Israel for treatment.

In his comments to reporters, Hussein voiced optimism about Netanyahu’s commitment to the peace process. He said Jordan was willing to continue serving as an intermediary and would “answer every call and extend every service to attain a comprehensive peace.”

The monarch also appeared to back the Israeli position that Jerusalem remain undivided.

“I’d like to say that it’s never occurred to us at any point in time — in fact since 1967 — that the city, in the context of peace, will be redivided,” Hussein said.

Netanyahu also used his remarks to express his commitment to continuing the Palestinian peace process, “including solving the problem of Hebron,” where Israeli troops are to be redeployed under the terms of the Interim Agreement.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai told reporters Monday that no date had yet been set yet for the troop redeployment in the volatile West Bank town.

In what was apparently designed to build confidence on the Palestinian track, Netanyahu told reporters that Israel would allow an additional 5,000 Palestinian workers into Israel.

The move came as part of a recent easing of the closure imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the wake of the Hamas terror attacks earlier this year. It means that some 30,000 Palestinians would now be allowed to work in the Jewish state.

Joint economic issues were also on the agenda of the Israeli leader’s visit.

Jordanians have complained that they have yet to see tangible economic benefits from the peace treaty signed with Israel in October 1994.

Joining Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in Amman was a delegation of leading Israeli industrialists and economists, who met with Crown Prince Hassan to discuss joint economic projects.

Netanyahu said the purpose of bringing the large delegation was to “breathe life into the peace accord” with Jordan.

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