Guns for peace: Hussein reaps strange reward

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HOW MANY times had he secretly visited Jordan, we asked Shimon Peres yesterday. And the Israeli Foreign Minister, with a slight toss of his head and the smile of a man who knows how to deal with the numbskulls of the press on his first public visit to the Hashemite Kingdom, answered without hesitation: 'We came here to make a story - not to write a story.'

It was about as subtle as you could get in the ballroom of the Dead Sea Spa Hotel with an Israeli military helicopter outside, a battalion of Jordanian soldiers on the hills to the east and an Israeli outside-broadcast lorry parked beside the heavy waters at the lowest point on earth.

But Mr Peres politely deflected the significance of his visit back to the days of King Abdullah, grandfather of the present King Hussein, who met Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett and Moshe Dayan in the months before his assassination, 43 years ago to the day.

But what was the story yesterday? History, we were told by Mr Peres - and by King Hussein, and by Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, was being made. It was a time for peace and, to be frank, a time for rhetoric. There was 'light at the end of the tunnel' (Mr Peres), while new hope was 'alive in this ancient land' (Mr Christopher) because we were 'at one of those vital and critical moments which history will cherish and poets shall praise' (Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam Majali). With a rhetoric bath like this, you did not need to go swimming in the Dead Sea to keep afloat.

Yet this was history, too, if not as straightforward as its participants might suggest. The king, white-bearded, bespectacled and in a black tie to honour the anniversary of his grandfather's murder, made no secret of the problems that still bedevil Jordan's talks with Israel. Would there be a peace agreement next week, or next month? 'We still have got a long way to go . . . a lot of problems to be solved,' he replied.

Jordanian officials - though the King was too polite to discuss this yesterday - say that outstanding problems included an Israeli rejection of 1928 British Mandate maps to define the border between the two countries and an insistence by the Israelis that Jordan's international boundary should be referred to as 'territorial wishes' much as the West Bank is now called by the Israelis 'disputed' rather than 'occupied' territory.

But it was Mr Majali who banished war yesterday afternoon, when, asked if there would be a formal end to the belligerency between Jordan and Israel, he replied: 'The war is behind . . . it's finished.'

And there was, of course, a reward for such statements. As Mr Christopher said, standing next to King Hussein at an earlier press conference: 'The United States has always been ready to help those in this region who have the courage to support the course of peace.' In Jordan's case, he frankly announced, this meant 'debt forgiveness, and making available certain military equipment'. King Hussein smiled broadly as Mr Christopher said this, and it did indeed seem a strange equation: guns for peace. The financial extent of America's 'forgiveness' is variously put at dollars 670m ( pounds 435m) - the Israeli version) - or dollars 950m ( pounds 616m) - the American version.