JERUSALEM (Mar. 16)
A conciliatory visit by Jordan’s King Hussein and warnings of Palestinian violence by Israeli security forces failed to deter Israeli plans to break ground this week for a new Jewish housing project in southeastern Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel would stand firm in its decision to build at Har Homa, despite Arab and international pressure to back down.
“There is no change,” Netanyahu said at a joint news conference with Hussein at the King David Hotel after their meeting. “Our friends can agree or not. We understand the concerns of the Palestinians and others, but we made a decision.”
The Israeli Cabinet voted unanimously last Friday to start building this week at Har Homa.
The decision was made despite assessments from security officials who said the construction could prompt Palestinian violence, including new terror attacks against Israel.
Netanyahu had pressed for the construction to counter recent threats from members of his coalition that they would vote no-confidence in his government if the project did not begin.
Meanwhile, the opposition Labor Party said it would press ahead with no- confidence motions against the government’s decision to build at Har Homa.
Before holding their talks Sunday, Netanyahu and Hussein spent the day paying condolence visits to the families of the seven Israeli schoolgirls killed by a Jordanian soldier last week.
Hussein’s trip was widely viewed as an effort to patch up relations between the two countries days after the king had sent an angry letter to the Israeli leader warning of the dangers of building at Har Homa. The shooting occurred a day after the letter’s publication.
Hussein referred to his letter during the news conference, saying that it was “never meant for publication.” He added that it was “leaked mysteriously” and that it contained “many distortions.”
Both Netanyahu and King Hussein stressed the importance of communication in the peace process.
“It was a personal letter,” Hussein added. “No offense was intended.”
Netanyahu echoed the king’s conciliatory statements, saying, “I believe that our disagreements have to be ironed out in direct conversations and human contacts.”
While Netanyahu did not budge on the Har Homa plans, he acknowledged that Israel was willing to be more flexible with the Palestinians in other areas.
Both he and King Hussein confirmed that they had spoken by telephone with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.
“We spoke to Chairman Arafat,” Netanyahu said, adding, “We cannot let our disagreements which are yet unresolved destroy the process.”
At the news conference, Hussein and Netanyahu repeatedly emphasized their commitment to peace despite last week’s shooting of the schoolgirls at the Naharayim enclave, which is under Jordanian control and leased to Israel under the two countries’ 1994 peace treaty.
Hussein said the two discussed a special project that would be set up at the enclave in memory of the murdered children.
He also pledged a full investigation of the incident.
Countering reports that Israeli-Palestinian contacts had broken down over Har Homa, Netanyahu said that one of the joint committees negotiating unresolved issues from the Hebron agreement, which was signed in January, had met Sunday night.
In a clear gesture to Arafat, he said a joint committee discussing security at a new Palestinian airport in southern Gaza had agreed that Israel would allow Arafat to take off and land from the airport, even before all details of its operations were completed.
Netanyahu also said he expected that other Israeli-Palestinian committees would continue discussions Monday.
Despite his assurances, it remained unclear whether the impasse in the Israeli- Palestinian relations was overcome.
Palestinian officials have claimed that the construction would alter the status quo of Jerusalem, whose future is to be determined in the final-status talks.
Those discussions were scheduled to resume Monday, but Palestinian leaders said they might not attend.
Israel maintains that it has the right to build anywhere in Jerusalem and that the construction is not prohibited by the Israeli-Palestinian accords.
Arafat convened foreign diplomats over the weekend in Gaza to discuss what he described as unilateral steps taken by Israel.
In addition to Har Homa, Palestinians were outraged over Israel’s decision to withdraw from a smaller area of the West Bank this month than they deemed adequate.
For the first of three further redeployments called for in the Hebron accord, Israel had announced that it would pull out of 9 percent of rural West Bank areas, 2 percent of which are now under sole Israeli control. But the Palestinian Authority angrily rejected the plan, prompting a delay in its implementation.
In a four-hour meeting with envoys from the United States, Russia, the European Union, Norway, Japan, Jordan and Egypt, Arafat asked his guests to “save the peace process.”
“We no longer have a partner” in Israel because of Netanyahu’s recent actions, Arafat said.
The envoys pledged to convey Arafat’s protests to their governments and to make them clear to Israel.
Edward Abington, the U.S. consul general to Jerusalem, said the diplomats agreed that “each government would conduct intensive efforts to lower the tension and restore confidence.”