Israel, Jordan to Begin Serious Peace Talks

ISRAEL and Jordan will knock another brick out of the wall of Middle Eastern hostilities on Monday when they open peace talks on their common border in an unprecedented step toward normal relations.

The two sides are pursuing very different goals in their negotiations, but by no means incompatible ones, officials from the two countries say. While Jordan is primarily seeking land and guaranteed water rights, Israel envisages economic cooperation and diplomatic ties.

But given the years of secret talks that Jordanian and Israeli leaders have held, despite the formal state of war between their two nations, a level of understanding has developed that is bound to ease the talks.

The opening meeting of the negotiations will be held in a tent in the Arava desert, on the Israeli side of the border. This is the first time that the Israeli-Jordanian peace talks, which have been sputtering inconsequentially for nearly three years, have moved out of Washington.

On Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres will become the first Israeli official to openly visit Jordan when he attends a meeting on the Jordanian side of the frontier with Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Majali and visiting US Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

At that meeting, officials expect ideas for regional cooperation to be raised, in line with Israeli hopes of fostering joint projects in the Jordan Valley area.

At earlier economic talks, Israeli officials have suggested the joint construction of roads in the frontier region, a rail link between Israel and Jordan, tourism projects, and joint ventures on the Dead Sea, which lies between the two countries, to exploit its potential for industrial chemicals.

Jordanian spokesmen, however, have made it plain that Amman is not ready to discuss such plans until Israel has acknowledged Jordanian claims to some 140 square miles of land along the border in the Arava desert, North of the Red Sea and to a patch of land just below the Sea of Galilee.

Fixing the border, Jordanian officials say, will finally put to rest the notion, popular among right-wing Israelis, that ``Jordan is Palestine,'' and should be the Palestinians' only homeland, leaving the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israeli sovereignty.

At the same time, Israeli farmers in the Arava have unilaterally pushed back the armistice line, drawn after the 1948 war that followed the creation of the State of Israel, into Jordanian territory, Amman claims. Israel does not seriously dispute this point, which is not expected to prove difficult to solve. Nor should Jordan's demand for assured water supplies from the Jordan River be hard to meet. Israeli and Jordanian officials have long maintained quiet but regular contacts to agree on water management, and they have developed a close relationship.

INITIALLY, the talks will be broken into three committees, dealing with security, the border, and water. At a later stage, Mr. Majali has indicated, Jordan will bring up the question of the 1.2 million Palestinian refugees who have been living in Jordan since the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel, and who wish to return to the West Bank.

The status of Jerusalem, where King Hussein has taken responsibility for Muslim shrines such as the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, is also expected to figure in later talks. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has gone out of his way several times recently to stress Israel's sensitivity to the King's religious aspirations.

Even if the talks make quick progress, however, nobody is expecting a formal peace treaty between the two countries, given Jordan's concern to maintain at least the appearance of Arab unity. Until Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians have reached agreements with the Jewish state, Jordan's King Hussein is unlikely to take the final step.

``Jordan rejects unilateral agreements with Israel, and we are committed to coordination with all Arab parties engaged in peace negotiations with Israel,'' Majali said Wednesday.

But King Hussein's decision to pursue serious talks with Israel in the region followed his angry public complaints that Arab coordination was ``below the minimum acceptable level,'' which had prompted Jordan to ``pay attention to its own interests.''

By launching into next week's talks, the King is bucking not only Syrian reservations, but also local opposition from Islamist groups opposed to any peace with Israel, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They have been especially vociferous since King Hussein announced last Saturday that he would be ready to meet Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The rewards of peace for Jordan would be high. If the country pursues a swift accord with Israel, Hussein told his people last Saturday, the Clinton administration will ask Congress to write off the kingdom's $1 billion debt to Washington.

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