Hussein and Peres exhort Syria to join peace drive

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The Independent Online


King Hussein made his first public visit to Tel Aviv yesterday, protected by a quarter of the Israeli police. At the same time, Israel began the release of 1,200 Palestinian prisoners under the terms of its peace agreement with the PLO.

Joining in a new demonstration of their peace accord, the leaders of Israel and Jordan symbolically beckoned to Syria to seize what the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, called "the galloping prospect of peace." The occasion was a presentation of prizes to the chief Israeli and Jordanian negotiators, and the symbolism was evident. With the US Secretary of State Warren Christopher sharing the platform, King Hussein and Mr Peres extolled the benefits of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours - and noted the risks involved.

"We know how heavy responsibility bears on us," the King told an audience of Israelis and Jordanians, including 12 members of Jordan's parliament, making a first visit to Israel.

Mr Peres, obviously with an eye on Damascus, which so far has not provided Israel with peace terms the Prime Minister considers satisfactory, said Israel and Jordan introduced "a model peace, a warm peace," and there is an unprecedented opportunity to spread it through the region. "We still face all kinds of challenges; the greatest of them is not to let the galloping prospect of peace pass us by." Behind him was a huge colour photograph of Yitzhak Rabin, who oversaw the peace with Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

King Hussein said Rabin left a legacy of struggle "to move away from darkness and fear" and towards peace.

The get-together on the shores of the Sea of Galilee was the first public event in Mr Christopher's latest peacemaking shuttle between Israel and Syria. "Although there are very serious gaps, I arrive here in a very hopeful frame of mind," Mr Christopher said in Jerusalem. "All the issues are on the table, and it is possible for the parties now to see the trade-offs."

The King, an experienced pilot, flew a Jordanian army helicopter to the Sde Dov air base close to Tel Aviv, where he was met by Mr Peres. Central Tel Aviv was paralysed as police closed off roads and diverted traffic.

Jordanian flags and banners welcoming the King in Arabic decorated the city as thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch the motorcade. He visited the Ichilov hospital, where two Jordanian soldiers are receiving treatment and where Rabin died after being shot in November. He took part in a ceremony naming the Yitzhak Rabin Trauma Centre and Rabin's widow, Leah, gave him a medal in honour of her husband.

By improving relations rapidly with Israel, Jordan has escaped the diplomatic isolation that accompanied its neutrality in the Gulf war. Earlier in the week the United States offered Jordan a military package including 16 F-16 aircraft. In the last six months, King Hussein has also expressed increasing opposition to the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.

In Gaza and the West Bank, Israel yesterday released 800 out of 1,200 prisoners who are to be freed before the Palestinian elections on 20 January. There were shouts of joy at the crossing point into Gaza as the detainees were freed. "I have mixed feelings,'' said Zakariya Abu Zaideh, 28, a member of the militant Islamic Jihad from Gaza. ''On the one hand, I am happy to be free. But I am also sad because many of my colleagues are still behind bars.''

Many of those freed belonged to Islamic and leftist groups opposed to Israeli-PLO peace moves. Prisoners said they signed a pledge against violence, but a pledge to support the peace process was dropped. The releases will reduce the number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel from 5,500 to 4,300.