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NEWS ANALYSIS Diplomats toil to get Israel, Palestinians back on course

JERUSALEM, March 17 (JTA) — Jordanian King Hussein”s condolence visit to Israel has bought a little time for Israelis and Palestinians to step back from the brink of confrontation. His visits to the families of the seven schoolgirls killed by a Jordanian soldier made for heart-wrenching scenes of simple, person-to-person emotion. They also provided a dramatic illustration — for the entire region, but especially for Israelis — of what real peace can mean, and of how much stands to be lost if the peace process is derailed. The royal visit did not, however, defuse the current crisis over Israel”s plan to build a new Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem. On the contrary, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the occasion of a joint news conference with the king at the end of their long day together to reiterate to the world that the building plans would go ahead. On Monday, speaking to members of the Knesset coalition, Netanyahu continued to be unequivocal. “The work to prepare the ground [for construction] will go ahead — this week,”” he said. “What we have announced will be carried out.”” Because of his vow to build in Jerusalem, hard-line coalition members backed down from their threat to join with the Knesset opposition in a no-confidence motion, which was defeated Monday. With the premier”s unwillingness to back off from what he views as Israel”s right to build anywhere within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, both sides readied themselves for a potentially explosive confrontation. Palestinian officials set up protest tents Monday near the planned building site, and Israeli troops were deployed near the rocky hilltop as bulldozers waited a short distance away for the green light from the government. As part of his urgent mediating effort, Hussein sent his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, to the Gaza Strip on Monday to confer with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. On Saturday, Arafat had convened in Gaza a meeting of foreign representatives involved in sponsoring the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as a way of heightening international pressure on Israel to step back from the Har Homa project. U.S. participation in the meeting, despite Israel”s requests that the Americans stay away, was seen as a success for Arafat, though the conference itself resulted in no specific decisions. Instead, the envoys pledged to convey Arafat”s protests to their governments and to make them clear to Israel. International efforts to head off a possible explosion of Palestinian violence, meanwhile, appeared to hinge on the hope that, despite the premier”s tough talk, the work of “preparing the ground”” initially would involve only surveyors. This hope is apparently shared by many Israelis. According to an opinion poll published Monday in the daily Yediot Achronot, half of the Israeli public wants the construction work at Har Homa to be delayed. This is a significantly larger percentage than those opposed to the project in principle. The feeling in the diplomatic community here was that the quiet activities of the surveyors — as distinct from the roar of the heavy equipment — would not necessarily trigger a Palestinian response. Beyond these vague hopes, American diplomacy was working frantically behind the scenes, during and after Hussein”s visit, to put together a package of moves that might assuage Palestinian anger and restore Palestinian honor even as Israel goes ahead with Har Homa. One such measure was announced by Netanyahu himself Sunday night, and the details of it were quickly negotiated Monday. Arafat, his family and his close entourage will be able to fly in and out of the Palestinian airport at Dahaniyeh in southern Gaza without Israeli security supervision. But Israeli guards, working at the airport alongside Palestinians, will be entitled to examine other people aboard Arafat”s jet. Negotiations on a general opening of the airport to civilian traffic — subject to Israel”s insistence on exercising security control over passengers — were to continue throughout the week. Among other items under discussion as possible components of a package that could restore the peace process to health despite Har Homa: * Progress on a Palestinian seaport in Gaza. Here, too, Israeli security concerns have slowed negotiations so far; * Progress on creating a “safe passage”” for Palestinians traveling between Gaza and the West Bank, a step provided for under the Israeli-Palestinian accords, but not yet implemented; * A reopening of Israel”s recent decision on the first redeployment from rural areas in the West Bank. Israel said it would withdraw from 2 percent of the West Bank that is now under full Israeli control and transfer another 7 percent from areas under joint control to full Palestinian civilian and security control; * An Israeli undertaking that the scale of the two subsequent redeployments scheduled to be completed by mid-1998 will be determined after consultations with the Palestinians. Israeli analysts say the government is unlikely to agree to any review of the terms of the first redeployment. Netanyahu has come under fierce criticism from hard-liners in his coalition for agreeing to the 2 percent pullback. Israel is said to have proposed a construction program for Palestinian residents of eastern Jerusalem, and also has pledged to earmark funds for infrastructure work in the eastern part of the city. These proposals are seen as attempts to “sweeten the pill”” of Har Homa. However, whether Palestinians would be satisfied by these gestures remains in doubt, as does the likelihood of getting Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to sit down for the final-status talks. Dr. Ahmed Tibi, Arafat”s Israeli Arab adviser, rejected in a telephone interview any speculation that the Palestinian opposition to Har Homa could be “bought”” by either pleasing the king or offering Arafat”s plane landing rights at the Gaza airport. “Whoever believes so is either a fool or a fool,”” Tibi said. Hussein”s visit nonetheless gave diplomats a little more time by making it virtually impossible for Netanyahu to send in the bulldozers the very next morning, as he had reportedly intended. To do so would have been to deliver a ringing slap in the face of the man who, despite last week”s tragedy on the Israeli-Jordanian border, appeared to have won back his position as the most popular public figure in Israel. The condolence visit, by all accounts, restored the high esteem reserved for Hussein, who only days before had profoundly altered his benign image by writing a highly publicized letter in which he angrily warned Netanyahu of the dangers of building at Har Homa. The March 13 killing of the schoolgirls occurred a day after the letter”s publication. Hussein”s visit, however, restored his image as Israel”s closest Arab friend. “You are not just Jordan”s king. You are our king, too. May Allah bless you,”” an elderly relative of Sivan Fatihi, one of the slain girls, told the monarch at the family”s home in Moshav Tslafon. Perhaps he was exaggerating, but not by much. The king”s outpouring of feeling to each of the bereaved families sent a shiver through this tough but troubled land of raw emotions. His kneeling in front of them as they sat on the floor, as mourning rites require, was seen as a quintessential act of humility and contrition. Commentators in the Israeli media, lauding the king, noted that his simple gestures had not belittled his regal bearing. To the contrary, they had enhanced it. Sivan”s father, Yisrael, seemed to speak for many when he urged the king and Netanyahu to work harder together for the cause of peace. Yisrael Fatihi, who has made numerous visits to the Jordanian capital of Amman, promised to return there despite the tragedy that struck his family. The king was visibly moved to hear this declaration, which was made in fluent English.