Jordanians Ease Objections to Direct Talks With Israel

UNITED States Secretary of State James Baker III's short visit to Jordan Saturday has broken the ice between the two countries and paved the way for closer coordination on Middle East peace which was sidelined by the Gulf war. Relations between Washington and Amman, a traditional ally of the US, were marred by Jordan's opposition to the US-led war against Iraq and by its tacit backing of the Baghdad regime.

Jordanian officials said both Washington and Amman were ready to restart discussions on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, but there were no signs that the US would resume financial aid to Jordan.

Talks between King Hussein and Mr. Baker, in the port city of Aqaba, did not seem to result in any clear definition of Jordan's role in a future settlement. But Amman indicated it would be willing to drop its longstanding call for a UN-sponsored peace conference and would accept a more loosely structured forum leading to direct talks between Arab states and Israel.

Responding to Baker's calls to abandon old taboos - an allusion to Arabs states' shunning of direct talks with Israel - King Hussein said: "I have never believed ... these taboos should be an impediment to making real progress toward peace."

But the apparent Jordanian shift, according to analysts, is mainly forced by the recognition that the postwar balance of power has moved in Israel's favor.

Furthermore, Jordan's earlier insistence on a UN-sponsored conference was largely aimed at including the Soviet Union to counter US-backing of Israel during the Arab-Israeli negotiations.

"The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the Gulf war has unequivocally proved that Moscow is no longer in position to counter Washington's influence and is expected to follow the US lead instead," says a former senior Jordanian official.

Despite the US emergence as world leader, Europe will still be interested in maintaining influence in the Middle East, suggests a Jordanian analyst close to the government.

"Europe has a vested interest in maintaining good relations with the Arab World, and to some extent this might help pressing for a more balanced international approach to the Israeli Arab conflict," the analyst said.

Aside from the framework of negotiations, King Hussein's main challenge will be the question of Palestinian representation and Jordan's role toward the Palestinians.

Three years ago, King Hussein ended a historic rivalry with the Palestine Liberation Organization by relinquishing responsibility for the Israeli-occupied West Bank to the PLO. The king's move amounted to a rejection of US and Israeli pressure on Jordan to represent the Palestinians and substitute for the PLO.

But Iraq's crushing defeat has once again placed King Hussein under pressure to assume the role of a senior partner in leading a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation - probably without PLO participation - to peace talks with Israel.

Should Jordan accept this role, it could jeopardize the internal stability of the country where roughly 50 percent of the population are of Palestinian descent. The king must also take into consideration widespread anti-US sentiments.

After the Aqaba talks, King Hussein made it clear that the Palestinians would have to decide whether they wanted to be part of a Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team or not. But the fact that the king did not refer to the PLO by name, however, has raised fears among some Palestinians that the old rivalry between the two might be reignited as US pressure to exclude the organization from the peace process continues.

All of these details will be irrelevant, Jordanian and PLO officials add, unless the US is ready to pressure Israel to make a territorial compromise. "If Israel does not accept to negotiate on the basis of land-for-peace principle, contained in the United Nations resolutions, the peace process will be another futile exercise," the former Jordanian official says.

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