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Israel 'a pen-stroke' from peace with Jordanians: Amman says bilateral peace agreement is 'premature'

ISRAEL'S Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, said yesterday that Israel and Jordan were the stroke of a pen away from finalising a peace agreement, but Jordan was inhibited by its wish not to act independently of the other Arab parties.

'What is missing in Israeli- Jordanian relations is a pen and not agreement, because essentially we have reached agreement. We just have to take out the pen and sign,' he said.

'The Jordanians do not want to finish it because they do not want to be first and they fear they will remain alone,' Mr Peres said.

In Amman, the new Jordanian Prime Minister and head of the Jordanian negotiating team, Abdul Salam al-Majali, rejected Mr Peres' comments as premature. 'This is absolutely and completely untrue' he told reporters yesterday. 'This is twisting of words.'

The negotiations between Israel and the three Arab states neighbouring it (Egypt already has a peace treaty) have made far more progress than the thornier talks on the resolution of the Palestinian issue. When Jordan presented what it called 'an agenda' last autumn, this was recognised as a draft peace agreement. 'As a matter of fact we did agree on all of the items, practically all of the items,' Mr Peres said.

'Very minor details were left open, so with relatively slight effort we can conclude and sign. I don't know if the Jordanians are willing or ready to be first to do so,' he said.

Jordan's unwillingness to go ahead and sign a peace agreement with Israel is not dictated solely by lip-service to the idea of a united Arab front in the search for a comprehensive settlement. Jordan could easily reach agreement on matters of border demarcation, monitoring of borders, security arrangements, water sharing and diplomatic ties. But Jordan's future is inextricably bound up with the future Palestinian presence in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank, whatever final settlement is reached there. Over half the population of Jordan is of Palestinian origin, with Jordanian passports.

At the weekend, the Jordanian Prime Minister said he expected progress by the end of the year. 'There will be progress by the end of the year because we feel the co-sponsors (the US and Russia) are showing real seriousness about becoming partners. We also see a change in the Israeli attitude towards the peace process, a change in the offers from the other side.'

After a meeting in Amman, Arab foreign ministers yesterday called on the United States to take a stronger role in the next round of negotiations, due to begin in Washington on 15 June.