Deals on land, water and economic ties

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The Independent Online
'A kilometre here, a kilometre there, a drop of water more, a drop of water less - what is this compared to a peace agreement?' asked Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, when challenged in his cabinet about compromises he made to secure today's peace treaty.

For four years Israel and Jordan have disputed these same kilometres and measures of water, holding them up as a reason not to make peace. However, unlike the disputes that once bogged down peace talks with Egypt, and unlike the present disputes with the Palestinians or Syrians, the issues that separated Israel and Jordan were never substantial. The lands they argued over were of dubious value, while security concerns were relatively easy to answer.

When the political will for peace was there, the nuts and bolts of the agreement dropped suddenly into place. The American offer to pay dollars 700m-dollars 1bn ( pounds 430m- pounds 614m) in Jordanian debt relief, and to modernise Jordan's armed forces, helped to push King Hussein to the peace table. The King saw in the treaty a chance to shore up the status of his kingdom against a potential threat from a Palestinian state.

For Israel, the prospect that peace with Jordan would hasten peace with the whole Arab world encouraged compromise. For Jordan, the main dispute with Israel centred on demarcation of its western boundary along what Israel calls the Arava Valley, running between the southern tip of the Dead Sea and the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea. Jordan insisted the boundary be drawn along a line sketched by British officials in 1922. Then Transjordan was carved off from British-mandate Palestine. Although the same line marked out an Israeli-Jordanian ceasefire line in 1949, after Israel's war of independence, Israel had always argued that it was not a legal international boundary.

After the 1967 war, Israel pushed out east of the British line, unilaterally occupying a strip of Jordanian territory along the valley, comprising a total of 381 sq km. The strip is largely desolate sand, but was made to bloom in parts by Israeli kibbutzniks.

Under today's treaty, the boundary is based on the 1922 line and Jordan is formally ceded sovereignty over the disputed lands. However, small chunks of the strip are to go back to Israel, under a 25-year lease, to allow the kibbutzniks to keep their farms, at least for now. A minor border dispute in the north, involving five sq km of land near Tiberias, has also been settled under the peace treaty.

Water was another key issue tackled under the treaty. Jordan has accused Israel for years of siphoning off its share of the waters of the River Jordan, and the King has said many times he would never go to war with Israel again except over water. The details of the water deal are not yet known. According to details published so far, the two sides have agreed to create 'new sources' of water rather than divide up existing sources. This is almost certain to mean an agreement to build desalination plants.

One proposal, backed recently by President Bill Clinton and under discussion, is a Red Sea-Dead Sea canal, carrying sea water north from the Red Sea. As the water flows the 400 metres to the Dead Sea it would pass through giant turbines. These turbines would produce power to drive desalination plants on the shores of the Dead Sea, desalinating Dead Sea water for drinking.

A second water-creation project under discussion would involve running a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea. It is taken as read that the treaty will also institute a wide range of new economic ties between the two states, ending existing boycotts.

The most controversial section of the treaty, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, is Jordan's role in East Jerusalem. Israel has recognised Jordan's 'special historic role' in guarding the Jerusalem holy sites and has given Amman a central role in future negotiations on the city's status.

Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, rejects a special role for Jordan, believing the city should be the Palestinian capital.

The refugee question also caused controversy. Two million Palestinians live in Jordan, and of these, half are refugees who fled from homes in Israel or the West Bank in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. The official Palestinian position remains that all refugees should have the right to return to their homes or receive full compensation. Israel rejects any Palestinian right of return to Israel proper. The two states have side- stepped the issue by agreeing to set up new committees on the refugees' future. However, secret deals are thought to be under discussion whereby Jordan may receive payment to help to resettle Palestinian refugees still in camps.

Letters, page 13