The King's Mission of Healing

March 1997 will go down in history as a memorable month in Israel-Jordan relations. First, an acrid exchange of letters between King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Then the murder of seven Israeli schoolgirls on a bit of Jordanian territory known as "peace island." And, finally, the extraordinary visit of Hussein to the bereaved families.

Indeed, Hussein deserves all the kudos he has received. Israelis from the top political commentators to residents of Beit Shemesh, the working-class town where the girls were from, had nothing but loving words of praise for Jordan's leader as they watched him crouch down to embrace the crying family members.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres later admitted that there was "no one like the king." Indeed, Hussein looked much more at ease in the cramped homes of mourning than did his fellow visitor, Mr. Netanyahu. Only a day before, the prime minister angered the mourners when his attendance at funerals prevented many family members from getting to the burial sites because of security measures.

Unfortunately, while Hussein won over the hearts of Israelis through his humanitarian gesture, he failed to persuade Netanyahu to stop the bulldozers from descending on Har Homa, a tree-topped hill in the southeast corner of Jerusalem. "If it is your intention to maneuver our Palestinian brethren into inevitable resistance, then order your bulldozers into the proposed settlement site," wrote Hussein in his March 9 letter to Netanyahu in which he chastised the latter for trying to "bury the peace process for all time."

Netanyahu responded that he was "baffled by the personal attacks against [him]." At the press conference between the two leaders last Sunday, he confirmed that the bulldozers would start clearing the land this week. Israeli papers reported the following day that tanks were ready to roll and that high-ranking security officials were expecting one of three scenarios: (1) intifada-like rioting; (2) terrorist attacks on both sides of the green line; (3) a combination of the two.

Unlike President Clinton, who recently jumped in at the 11th hour to stop an American Airlines strike, Netanyahu is unlikely to come to the rescue. He has the power to stop - or at the very least delay - any of these scenarios. But he resists using it because it is Jerusalem that is at stake. There is a general consensus that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel. Any move that puts into question that sovereignty could be politically damaging for Netanyahu.

Backing down on a building project within the municipal borders of the capital - after the Cabinet approved it a little more than a month ago in a 10-to-7 vote - would likely make the prime minister look malleable and cause several ministers to resign. And neither the condemnation of 130 countries nor the threats of chaos seem capable of changing his mind.

But Netanyahu should not be intimidated by the members of his government who are pushing him to make such unwise political moves. He always has the option of a unity government. Labor Party leaders like former chief of staff Ehud Barak have already expressed their willingness to join. Moreover, Netanyahu has already accepted the Labor-constructed Oslo accords (while making some adjustments in order to appease members of his Cabinet), so there is no reason why he shouldn't reach out to the opposition for help.

Meanwhile, Hussein and Netanyahu did manage to reach one positive resolution during the king's visit to comfort mourning families: The "peace island" will be turned into what Hussein called a "living memorial" for the victims of the attack - a binational park for Israeli and Jordanian kids to play in together. Too bad the same philosophy couldn't be applied to one of the last open, green spaces in Jerusalem - Har Homa.

* Janine Zacharia is a staff correspondent at The Jerusalem Report.

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