Tragic Shooting Strains Israel-Jordan Ties

But calls for calm could temper tensions long-term

Relations between Israel and Jordan, already sliding over the way Israel interprets the peace accords with the Palestinians, took a severe turn yesterday when a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls, killing seven.

The attack came on the heels of a harshly worded letter from Jordan's King Hussein this week to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the widely published complaint, the king expressed disappointment and mistrust of the Israeli premier, warning that Mr. Netanyahu's policies seemed bent on destroying peace and driving Palestinians to "inevitable violent resistance."

King Hussein, who cut short a trip in Spain and delayed a planned stop in the United States, called Israel's president and expressed deep regret over the shooting. He said that he felt as though his own children had been killed. Israeli leaders stopped short of making a direct connection between the shooting and Hussein's biting letter in their efforts to lessen tensions with the country that had until recently become the Jewish state's friendliest Arab neighbor.

"I don't want to link this terrorist attack with anything more than it is, an attack on innocent schoolchildren," says Israeli spokesman Moshe Fogel, adding that the heated talk of a return to bloodshed should be curtailed. "We think we should lower the level of the rhetoric."

President Clinton reinforced the notion that there was no reason to conclude that the shooting represented anything other than an isolated act.

Still, the incident punctuates the ease with which leaders' disagreements over the road to peace between the Arab world and Israeli's nine-month-old government can translate into acts of violence on the street. It also showed the precarious line the Jordanian monarch walks between being Israel's best Arab ally, championing the Palestinian cause, and acting as a regional powerbroker.

The shooting happened during a school trip in the Jordan Valley, a relatively peaceful border between the two countries that made peace in 1994 after years of secret desert meetings between the nations' leaders. King Hussein had long made covert overtures to Israel that he was interested in making peace but could not do so until Israel first took steps to solve its dispute with the Palestinians. As a result of the wars of 1948 and 1967 - in which Jordan lost the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel - Hussein rules a population that is up to 70 percent Palestinian.

A year after Israel and the Palestinians reached their "Declaration of Principles," Hussein eagerly signed a treaty with Israel to the chagrin of Syria and Lebanon. Hussein expressed such warmth over the new ties that when he came to slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in 1995, he eulogized him as "a brother."

But that support for peace has never spread widely among average Jordanians, just as Egypt's 17-year-old peace with Israel has yet to gain much popularity even among the Egyptian elite. Jordanians often complain that Hussein "oversold" the peace process by promising economic dividends that never materialized. Israel's recent decisions to build a new Jewish neighborhood in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem and to withdraw from a smaller-than-expected amount of West Bank land had members of Jordan's parliament this week demanding that the kingdom sever ties with the Jewish state.

When Netanyahu's election last May on a hard-line platform sent shock waves through the region, Hussein's was a sole voice pleading for the Arab world to give the new premier a chance. But the Likud leader did not forge the type of ties enjoyed by the previous Labor government, and the king now complains that promises he has been given by Netanyahu have not been kept.

Hussein has been ever-mindful of showing concern over the plight of Palestinians. He is worried about an eventual takeover by the Palestinian majority of his Hashemite minority - descendants of Bedouin nomads.

Hussein, who has restored ties with Yasser Arafat, has also been able to parlay warm ties with Israeli into a role as a regional powerbroker. The king acted as a key last-minute catalyst for getting Israel and Palestinians to agree on January's Hebron deal to continue the peace process. But now, Hussein has found himself under more pressure to freeze his ties with Israel, or to use his clout to convince Israelis to backtrack on controversial policies.

This week's letter was full of frustration with his inability to do that. Netanyahu said he thought the personal attack was uncalled for, and that yesterday's attack was unconscionable if peace is to continue.

"We may have disagreements between us, but we have to agree on this: Violence of any kind is unacceptable," Netanyahu said after the shooting.

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