Arab world warms ties with Israel

This weekend, Jordan made its highest-level diplomatic trip to Israel in more than four years.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

After four years of getting cold-shouldered by the Arab world, Israel is now basking in some regional warming.

Over the weekend, Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani al-Mulki visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas. It was Jordan's highest-level visit in four years. Relations cooled after the start of the intifada in September 2000, when Jordan was angered by Israel's hard-hitting response to the uprising.

Mr. Mulki's visit follows Jordan's reappointment last month of an ambassador to Tel Aviv, after leaving the post vacant for four years.

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Egypt, too, has warmed up to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, deciding last month to send back its own ambassador for the first time in four years.

And far away Tunisia, which shut down its liaison office with Israel after the intifada broke out, has raised eyebrows by inviting Mr. Sharon to Tunis to attend an information-technology conference to be held in November. Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, says he has accepted the invitation.

Analysts say these changes strengthen Israel's diplomatic posture considerably. Meanwhile, the replacement of Saddam Hussein's regime with a democratic government in Iraq, and intensified international pressure on Syria, including demands that it withdraw from Lebanon, has boosted Israel's security.

"There is a desire on the part of some of the Arab countries to embrace Israel in order to try to lock it into the road map, to make sure there is an ongoing peace process leading to a two-state solution," says Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a Middle East historian at Tel Aviv University.

But observers stress that the warming could be reversed if Israel does not resume final-status peace negotiations with the Palestinians. These negotiations are specified in the international blueprint known as the road map, which calls for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

In warming the ties, Egypt and Jordan are trying to ensure that Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in July is not the last pullback from occupied territory. Rather, they would like to transform the Gaza pullout into a step that leads back to the final-status negotiations.

In October, senior Sharon adviser Dov Weisglass said the Gaza withdrawal would enable Israel to avoid concessions on the West Bank for the foreseeable future.

The upgrading of the Egyptian and Jordanian diplomatic roles began at last month's summit between Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Sharm el-Sheikh, which was hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and attended by Jordan's King Abdallah.

Egypt and Jordan, analysts say, are trying to convince Israel that Mr. Abbas is a viable negotiating partner to whom it must make concessions if peace efforts are to advance.

"An opportunity has presented itself with Abbas and everyone on this side is showing goodwill in the hope of allaying some fears of the Israeli public and allowing Israel to move forward," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies, in Amman.

In Maddy-Weitzman's view, the change in Egyptian and Tunisian approaches to Israel must be seen within the context of the pressure that Arab regimes are feeling from President Bush's calls for the spread of democracy in the Middle East.

"One of the traditional ways to curry favor with Washington is through the Arab-Israeli conflict," he says. "Many countries, including Arab countries, think the way to Washington is through Jerusalem."

In a joint press conference Saturday night, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his counterpart, Mulki, both stressed the centrality of the road map.

But they differed over the pace of reviving it. "We have to stop the terror right away, we have to make peace right away," Mulki said.

Mr. Shalom said that it would be impossible to move ahead until the Palestinians dismantle "the terror infrastructure." On Feb. 25, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed five people in Tel Aviv.

Shalom added that confidence- building steps were necessary because "it takes time to build up trust that does not exist." Shalom told reporters he would visit Amman within weeks to keep up the momentum in relations.

Not everyone is pleased that Jordan and Egypt are boosting ties with Israel. "I wish that this was delayed because we want to put pressure on the Israeli side to give us our rights," says Palestinian legislator Hassan Khreisheh. "Sending back the ambassadors gives the Israelis concessions without achieving anything in return that would benefit our people."

This weekend, Abbas said that unless there is a transfer of West Bank cities to Palestinian control, the Palestinian Authority (PA) would not be able to ensure security in them. Israel suspended plans to carry out such transfers after the Tel Aviv attack. The PA sent police into the West Bank town of Dura on Saturday where, according to the PA, they seized bombs and weapons and arrested 16 people who allegedly burned police cars. It was not clear if the weapons belonged to militants involved in attacks against Israelis.

Mr. Gissin, the Sharon spokesman, welcomed the move but added that it fell far short of dismantling the militant groups. "It is only scratching the surface." he said.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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