Clinton hails first Israel-Jordan summit

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AMID much pomp and ceremony, Jordan's King Hussein and Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, will hold a summit here in nine days' time - their first public meeting, and one which Washington hopes will lead to a formal peace treaty.

Making the surprise announcement yesterday, President Bill Clinton described the summit as 'another step towards a comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East'. The two leaders will address a joint session of Congress and attend a White House dinner.

Though Israel and Jordan have long been close to an agreement, and the King and Mr Rabin are believed to have already held secret face-to-face talks, their joint public appearance at the White House will none the less have an aura of history, as a symbol of an end to the state of war which has formally existed between the two countries since the Jewish state's foundation in 1948.

It cannot compare to the handshake on the South Lawn between Mr Rabin and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, last September - undoubtedly Mr Clinton's greatest foreign policy success. But with its handling of international affairs under renewed fire for inconstancy and weakness, the administration is counting on another timely boost for Mr Clinton and his much-vilified Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.

Appearing with Mr Clinton in the White House briefing-room yesterday, Mr Christopher said he would be seeking further progress on all fronts in the Middle East during his trip to the region next week, where he will hold a ground- breaking joint meeting with the Israeli and Jordanian foreign ministers. He also plans separate talks with Mr Arafat on the progress of Palestinian autonomy in Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

The Middle East was entering a new era, Mr Clinton said, referring to what he called dramatic progress during trilateral meetings between US, Jordanian and Israeli officials here last month. He now hopes that the Hussein-Rabin summit will put further pressure on Syria to strike a deal in its own negotiations with Israel.

These have hitherto foundered on the future of the Golan Heights. But in what is being seen as a sign of Israel's willingness to go at least half of the way, the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, on Thursday insisted that Israel 'time after time' since 1967 had admitted Syria's right to sovereignty over the Heights.

Despite the advances made since the 1991 Madrid conference in separate talks between Israel and the PLO and Jordan, discussions with Syria have been stalled by Israel's refusal to say how much land it would hand back until Damascus agrees to a comprehensive peace, including full diplomatic recognition and open borders between the two countries. Mr Peres now seems to be signalling Israel's keenness on a deal. Syria's official press said on Thursday that Damascus too is 'serious' in its quest for a settlement.