Jordan-Israel Handshake Signals Major Change

Jordan's course turns from pan-Arabism to securing its own interests, as King Hussein meets with Israeli Prime Minister Rabin

ON July 20, 1951, Jordan's King Abdullah was assassinated in Jerusalem, in front of his grandson, because he had been holding secret meetings with Israel. Forty-three years later that grandson, King Hussein, has decided to move from secret talks to open negotiations with the former enemy. He meets today in Washington, D.C., with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with the ultimate aim of a peace treaty.

King Abdullah's meetings were viewed by many Palestinians as a betrayal of their plight. But the Palestinians have already struck their own deal. And King Hussein, who had stuck to the Arab strategy of a joint approach to negotiations, found that Syria, too, had begun to go its own way.

In a July 9 speech, shortly after a meeting with United States President Clinton, the king indicated publicly for the first time that Jordan would proceed on its own track. A public meeting with Mr. Rabin, he said, was crucial to the ``existence'' of the country.

The US, he said, had promised to write off Jordan's foreign debts and resume military assistance if progress was made with Israel.

Jordanians also hope the US meeting with Rabin will place Jordanian-US relations on a normal track again, and open the door for reconciliation with the Gulf states, which have ostracized Jordan since the Gulf war.

The king has long known, officials say, that declaring a readiness to sign a peace treaty with Israel was the price for easing the economic and political pressures Jordan has been under since he refused to join the US-led coalition against Iraq.

Initially, the king argued he could not sign a treaty prior to an agreement over the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. That argument was undermined when the Palestine Liberation Organization signed a limited Palestinian autonomy deal with Israel on Sept. 13, 1993: ``The pressures actually intensfied following the agreement. From the US viewpoint, the Palestinians had already reached a deal and there was no reason for Jordan not to,'' says a Jordanian official.

Last January, the political pressures took the form of an implicit link between Jordan's position and both US financial and military aid and the tightening of the US-led Navy blockade of Jordan's only port, Aqaba, as part of the United Nations embargo on Iraq.

King Hussein reacted angrily in March by declaring that he was suspending Jordan's participation in the peace process. This prompted the US to agree that a third party, the British Lloyd's Register, would carry out a land inspection as a substitute for the Navy blockade.

According to former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Michelle Sasson, secret contacts between Jordan and Israel resumed last February.

But it was only in early June, when King Hussein summoned top negotiators to London, that the prospects for a breakthrough appeared. Jordanian officials say that in London it became clear that Israel was ready to move from its total denial of territorial and water rights for Jordan to a willingness to negotiate water allocations and to settle territorial disputes on the basis of boundary definitions set by the British mandate.

Jordan is trying to retrieve 140 square miles of territory that it says Israel captured in the early 1970s, and accuses Israel of stealing water from the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers.

Even former Jordanian officials who are skeptical of the current talks say that the country has embarked on a new, seemingly irreversible, course.

The new thinking is based on the conclusion that the era of a pan-Arab strategy to counter Israel ended when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, effectively removing the largest Arab country from the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The devastating defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war crushed any remaining illusions about pan-Arabism, causing each Arab country to fend for itself, say Jordanians familiar with the king's thinking.

Consequently, King Hussein now seems completely unperturbed by the the opposition of Islamists and leftists who have declared today a ``black day'' in the history of Jordan. Opposition sources admit that it is difficult to even mobilize wide protests after the PLO-Israeli agreement.

Moreover, many Jordanians are now hopeful that Jordan will start getting the preferential treatment - a flow of consistent US aid - that Egypt has enjoyed since its treaty with Israel.

When the opposition tries to ring the alarm bell by reminding people that Egypt is debt-ridden, the usual response is that Jordan would do better if it got such aid.

``The US has been consistent in its aid to Egypt, but it could not make Egypt improve its performance or restructure its economy,'' says Fahed al-Fanek, a leading Jordanian economist.

``In our case,'' he adds, ``there is a different question: Is the US committed to helping Jordan?''

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