Israel, Jordan Take Steps to Repair Strained Relations

Israel and Jordan appear to be engaged in some serious fencemending.

A series of meetings this week — capped by a session in Tel Aviv between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan — showed that the two countries are trying to end some five months of strained relations.

The breach, perhaps the worst since the two countries signed their 1994 peace treaty, opened last September, when a group of Mossad agents flubbed an attempted assassination of a Hamas leader on the streets of the Jordanian capital.

Jordan’s King Hussein ended security cooperation with Israel and was reported as telling Israeli officials that there would be no improvement in relations until the head of Mossad, Danny Yatom, was removed from the post.

Yatom recently resigned and was replaced by Ephraim Halevy, Israel’s ambassador to the European Union.

Halevy, who enjoys a good relationship with Hussein, had been instrumental in restoring ties between the two countries in the wake of the Mossad fiasco.

His appointment as Mossad chief, according to observers, had much to do with assuaging Hussein’s anger at Israel.

The Netanyahu-Hassan meeting came after Cabinet members Natan Sharansky and Ariel Sharon visited Jordan this week for talks on joint development projects.

Mundhir Hadadin, Jordan’s water minister, said Israeli-Jordanian relations were “back on track” after he met with Sharon.

Sharansky’s trip culminated with an agreement for the two countries to expand business ties and joint ventures.

Sharansky and his Jordanian counterpart, Hani Mulki, also signed a letter calling on the European Union to provide tax exemptions to joint Israeli- Jordanian products.

The two trade ministers also exchanged copies of an agreement, recently ratified by their respective countries, to have jointly operated factories in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid produce goods that will be exempt from U.S. taxes.

After Netanyahu and Hassan met Tuesday, the two pledged at a news conference to increase bilateral ties and to advance regional peace efforts, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

Their statements came shortly after three Palestinians were killed by Israeli army fire at a checkpoint in the Hebron area.

The army said the soldiers opened fire when a Palestinian vehicle approaching the roadblock veered towards them, causing them to suspect that it was trying to run them over. One soldier was lightly hurt.

Palestinians rioted at the site following the incident. There were also reports of rioting in Hebron.

Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman called the incident a “new Israeli massacre,” and other Palestinian officials warned that it could spark a new Palestinian uprising.

At their news conference, Netanyahu and Hassan appealed for a spirit of good will and cooperation to get past the day’s events.

Hassan, who met a day earlier with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, told Netanyahu that Arafat was willing to meet with him, the premier said.

Netanyahu, who has called for a summit with the Palestinian leader, said the coming days would prove whether Arafat was serious about such a meeting.

He added that the deepening ties between Jordan and Israel should serve as an example for what can be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians.

Hassan said he came away from the meeting with a feeling of “cautious optimism,” adding that it was important for the two countries to do “good things in hard times, at the regional level, and not wait for initiatives by the United States and Europe.”

In addition to Netanyahu, Hassan met with Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, Sharansky and Sharon. Among the topics they discussed was the deepening of security ties — particularly the need to renew relations between the Israeli and Jordanian intelligence agencies.

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