Behind the Headlines: Palestinians Also Worry About Jordan’s Intent in Peace Process

Here in the West Bank town that serves as the seat of the Palestinian legislative council, there is little trust in Israel.

When the Israeli Cabinet approved in principle this week a redeployment but gave no details regarding how much West Bank land would be relinquished, Palestinian officials gave a mixed — and initially cautious — response.

But the initial caution took a different turn by Tuesday.

During a joint news conference here with Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Majali, Arafat reacted sharply to a statement made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day earlier — that Israel would annex the Jordan Valley and other areas of the West Bank if Arafat unilaterally declared a Palestinian state.

“Let it be clear to all that the state of Palestine exists,” Arafat said, adding that eastern Jerusalem would serve as its capital.

The U.S. State Department called for a timeout Tuesday from this latest exchange, telling both Israel and the Palestinians that there was more to be gained from negotiations than from proclaiming unilateral steps they would take if talks fail.

The heated rhetoric aside, Palestinian independence is no longer a dream in Ramallah, but a daily reality.

Once one passes the Palestinian checkpoint at the entrance to the town, there are only a few markers recalling the once-dominant Israeli presence.

At the entrance to the road leading up to the administrative building of the Palestinian legislative council, there is still a sign in Hebrew saying: “No entrance, except for security vehicles.”

It is as if the Palestinians have left the sign there on purpose, as a silent reminder that the Israelis are still nearby.

And indeed, Israeli settlements surround Ramallah.

But inside the town, the only Israelis to be seen on Tuesday were journalists who came to cover the Arafat-Majali meeting.

The session took place in the same building that had served the Israeli governor of Ramallah until Israeli troops completed their withdrawal two years ago this month.

Palestinian security guards stood at the checkpost at the entrance to the compound, visibly enjoying the experience of body-searching Israeli journalists who came to cover the meeting.

The meeting between Arafat and Majali reflected the suspicion with which the Palestinians still eye the Jordanian role in the peace process.

The Palestinians are concerned that if negotiations over the final status of the territories indeed take place sooner than originally anticipated, the Jordanians might claim certain privileges.

Of special Palestinian concern is the special status that Jordan’s King Hussein claims as the guardian of the Muslim holy sites in eastern Jerusalem.

But for all the tensions that mark relations between the Palestinians and Jordanians, the comments Arafat and Majali made to reporters were mainly aimed at Israel.

Majali described Israel as an obstacle to peace, adding, “All of Jerusalem, not only East Jerusalem, is up for negotiations.”

A declaration hardly welcome in Israel — but music to Arafat’s ears.

Arafat, beyond his remark about a Palestinian state, refused to delve into the Israeli Cabinet’s decision, saying that he had not received any official Israeli proposal.

“We will not give any position in response to media reports,” he said.

Palestinian officials were insisting this week that Israel honor its commitments and proceed with the three phased redeployments spelled out in already signed agreements, but unoffically they have adopted a wait-and-see stance.

They are well aware that strong elements within the Israeli government, such as Foreign Minister David Levy and Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, will push for a detailed Israeli proposal regarding the final-status talks within two weeks.

They are also aware that there are other strong elements in the Netanyahu coalition, such as the ministers from the National Religious Party and the Tsomet Party, who may foil the entire initiative.

Israeli Cabinet members said Sunday that a redeployment could only occur after Netanyahu presented his plan to them for a permanent-status solution.

The much publicized infighting within the Netanyahu government prompted chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to comment this week, “Israel should stop negotiating with itself and start negotiating with us.”

Azmi Shuaybi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said the Israeli Cabinet decision was “totally designed to keep together the various factions inside the Israeli coalition.”

“It is not meant to reach a working dialogue with us.”

He, like other Palestinian officials, rejects the Israeli preconditions on the redeployment, particularly Israel’s demand that the Palestinian Authority first prove its commitment to fight terror.

“This amounts to a reopening of the negotiations, which is totally unacceptable to us,” said Shuaybi.

Meanwhile, here on the streets of Ramallah there was little hope for the peace process.

Next week marks the 10th anniversary of the intifada, or the Palestinian uprising. From its beginning, in December 1987, until its end in September 1993, more than 1,100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers. Palestinians killed nearly 150 Israelis.

Some people here felt the current juncture in the peace process could well lead to the start of another intifada.

“Both parties are playing for time,” said Rafik Bishara, a taxi driver. “Both parties are playing versus the Americans, not versus each other. Both have not overcome the main problem in the current crisis, the lack of mutual trust.”

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