Deal caps Israel-Jordan contacts

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THE DECLARATION of non- belligerency by Israel and Jordan yesterday formalised a situation which had existed since 1967. Jordanian forces did not take part in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and King Hussein was only reluctantly and against his better judgement drawn into the 1967 Six-Day war, which saw him lose control of the West Bank and the holy sites in Jerusalem.

Yesterday's meeting was the latest in the remarkable series of agreements and meetings over the past two years, and is yet another building block in the construction of a new Middle East. It is a sign of how far attitudes in the Middle East have changed and how irreversible is the current process.

A deal with Jordan was always going to be the easiest for the Israelis to reach. The two sides had long since enjoyed a modus vivendi. Immediately after Israeli troops surged down to the Jordan river in 1967, the defence minister, Moshe Dayan, ordered that the bridges across the muddy trickle be kept open. This provided a safety valve for the Palestinians on the West Bank who wished to maintain contact with their compatriots on the East Bank. And it ensured that a working relationship was created and maintained between Israeli and Jordanian officials.

Other links, formal and less formal, evolved in practical matters, such as sharing the waters of the Jordan river (although the Jordanians insist that the Israelis have consistently abused agreements reached in the 1950s on water sharing) and in more sensitive ones such as intelligence-sharing on their joint concern, combating Palestinian extremism.

Historically, first the early Zionists and then Israeli leaders looked on the Jordanians as the best of enemies. Papers in the Central Zionist Archives detail minutes of meetings between King Hussein's grandfather, King Abdullah, and Zionist leaders. The first contacts took place with Abdullah's brother, Faisal. He received the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in January 1918. Weizmann first met Abdullah in London in 1922. Regular contacts between Abdullah and, first, Jewish Agency officials (including Golda Meir), and after 1948 with Israeli leaders, continued intermittently until his assassination in Jerusalem in 1951.

There is little reason to suppose that King Hussein did not continue the contacts begun by his revered grandfather, but no documentary evidence of such meetings has been made public. The breakthrough came last September, when the Palestinians and the Israelis reached their accord. This done, the Jordanians could go ahead and make their own agreement without being accused, as they had so often in the past, of betraying Palestinian interests, a charge they found deeply wounding given the fact that Jordan has given sanctuary to so many.

Then on 1 October came the first public meeting between the two men on either side of the Jordan who most resemble each other: Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Crown Prince Hassan, King Hussein's younger brother and heir-apparent, and on this occasion his stalking horse. Both have articulated imaginative scenarios for future regional economic co-operation, and both are of intellectual bent.

Now the Palestinians have implemented the first part of their accord. The Israelis have withdrawn forces from the Jericho area, and redeployed within the Gaza Strip. For the first time in over 27 years, Palestinians are not subjected to daily harassment by the Israelis. And the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader, Yasser Arafat, is installed in Gaza.

For the Israelis, however, it has always been the Arab armies on Israel's borders and the missiles and weapons of its enemies beyond, which posed the real threat to Israel's existence. With a non-belligerency pact reached with Jordan, and a peace treaty with Egypt reached in 1979 which has withstood Israel's invasion of Lebanon and other strains, the only real obstacle now to a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict is Syria.

(Photograph omitted)