JERUSALEM — EXPECTATIONS are running high in Israel of an imminent breakthrough in the peace process with Jordan after an Israeli Cabinet minister said Wednesday that the two countries have already reached an agreement in principle on a treaty.
``An agreement in principle is locked in and closed,'' said Israeli Housing Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, speaking to Israel Radio.
While pessimists still believe King Hussein may wait to sign any formal accord until Israel also reaches an understanding with Syria, Israeli officials appear increasingly confident that Jordan may be willing to move on its own.
Some predict a deal could be made public within weeks - or even days.
``Some very important developments are expected with Jordan,'' Israel's Environment Minister Yossi Sarid told Israel television this week. ``Wait a few days and the fog will lift.''
The Israeli daily Maariv reported on Wednesday that an agreement in principle was initialed in a secret meeting last week between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein in Amman, Jordan. ``An accord is near,'' agreed PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at a press conference Monday in Brazil.
The Nov. 8 elections in Jordan, which strengthened the hand of moderate Jordanian politicians against the country's Islamists, will help expedite the signing of an agreement, Israeli analysts say.
Despite all of the positive signs, however, King Hussein is remaining tight-lipped about the possibilities for a summit between himself and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. ``I have never met with Rabin and I have no plans to do so in the near future. Everything in its time,'' the king said Monday.
The reported agreement is said to include Israel's return of 190 square miles of Jordanian territory in the southern Negev desert. But Israeli kibbutzim that have turned the border strip into profitable hothouse farms might continue to manage the land on a long-term lease.
Jordan also reportedly wants Israel to guarantee a role for Amman in the talks on the final status of East Jerusalem, and to press the United States for reductions in Jordan's debt burden.
Israel, meanwhile, would receive full diplomatic recognition from Jordan, and agreements on extensive cooperation in trade and economic development.
Signs of impending Jordanian-Israeli economic cooperation are already appearing here. Israeli Agriculture Minister Yaacov Tsur and his Jordanian counterpart met publicly at a Food and Agriculture Organization conference in Rome on Tuesday, and briefly discussed the potential for bilateral cooperation on trade and water issues.
Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian participants at a meeting in Copenhagen of the multilateral peace talks on economic development, agreed that one of the first regional projects would be a highway from Jerusalem to Amman.
Quiet cooperation in tourism has also begun in recent months, with Israeli companies organizing tours to Jordan for foreign tourists visiting here.