Prelude to a Handshake: Jordan's Step Toward Peace

ALONG with giant magnolias and stately elms, Middle East peace seems to flourish on the lush green grounds of the White House.

It was here, in 1979, that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David treaty. It was here, last September, that the leaders of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) took their first tentative steps toward a reconciliation. And it will be here, on Monday, that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein will clasp hands, demolishing another chunk of the wall of hostility that has isolated Israel from its neighbors since its creation.

``I think you have to look at this as another major event that symbolizes a transformation of the landscape of the Middle East,'' a senior Clinton administration official said recently of Monday's historic meeting, which is seen as a giant step toward ending the technical state of war that has existed between Israel and Jordan since 1948.

The White House ceremony will also be a welcome step for President Clinton, who has come under intense criticism for his handling of other foreign- policy issues. (Israel-Jordan talks, Page 7.)

King Hussein has met several times with Israeli leaders over the years, but always in secret. Though long eager to begin normalizing relations with the Jewish state, he has been constrained by two factors: the hostility toward Israel long prevalent among the Palestinians who comprise more than half of Jordan's population; and pressure from powerful Arab neighbors, including Syria, not to break the united Arab front against Israel.

The king's willingness to meet openly with Israeli leaders is a measure of how dramatically Arab opinion has changed since the start of the Middle East peace process three years ago. After PLO chairman Yassir Arafat's historic handshake with Mr. Rabin last September, it is now considered safer for the king to follow suit. Syria, for its part, is now diplomatically isolated and under significant pressure to strike its own deal with Israel over the disposition of the disputed Golan Heights, the issue over which an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement will be made or broken.

One consequence of such changes, as the senior official notes, is an Israeli-Jordanian dialogue ``that is in the daylight, that is official, that is formal.''

The stage has been set for Monday's meeting by two events that would have seemed unimaginable even a year ago. On Monday, Israeli and Jordanian negotiators began peace talks in a tent pitched astride their southern desert border. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres became the first Israeli official to publicly set foot in Jordan, where he met with Jordan's Prime Minister Abdul Salam Majali and United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

The objective of this flurry of diplomatic activity is a peace treaty between the two old adversaries that would lead to full diplomatic and economic relations. Before that happens, the two sides will have to address some thorny bilateral issues, including disputed water rights and a disputed border that Jordanians say has left Israel holding 150 square miles of its territory.

The fruits of peace could be abundant. Negotiators for the two sides are now discussing joint projects to promote tourism, to construct a road linking Jordan, Israel, and Egypt, and to create a transborder national park in the Jordan Rift Valley. Mr. Majali said Wednesday that agreements on some issues could be implemented before an actual peace treaty is signed.

For taking his diplomacy with Israel out of the shadows, King Hussein is likely to be rewarded generously. The US is expected to increase military aid to the desert kingdom and forgive up to $900 million in debts. But while such inducements have eased the way, it is the logic of events, not US rewards and pressure, that have made this latest breakthrough in Middle East diplomacy possible. Thus, while the US is still needed to nudge the process along, it no longer has to chart the course or exert the kind of diplomatic pressure employed by the Bush administration to get the peace process started in 1991.

With Israeli-Jordanian relations now on a promising course, attention now turns to Syria, the last holdout among the front-line states bordering Israel. The outlines of a Syrian-Israeli settlement have long been clear, but the two sides continue to dither over who should make the first move. Mr. Christopher traveled to Damascus this week to move the process along, though without apparent success. Diplomatic observers say that a settlement is just a matter of time.

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