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Israel and Jordan come out into the open

IN THE days after Israel's startling military conquests of June 1967, in a campaign prepared by chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli leaders anxiously waited for King Hussein of Jordan to contact them about the future of the West Bank of the River Jordan.

'Waiting for the call from King Hussein' became the key to the policy of Israel's ruling Labour party. The call never came. King Hussein was not prepared to accept the 70 per cent of the West Bank which Israel was prepared to give up. Under the plan drawn up by Yigal Allon, Israel would hold on to security settlements in the Jordan valley and on top of strongholds overlooking the passes through the hills of Judea and Samaria. For the Hashemite monarch, this was not enough

Today in Washington, 27 years on, the protagonists are meeting in public for the first time. And the Jordanians hope that one dividend will be US largesse to support an economy devastated by withdrawal of Saudi and Gulf aid during and after the Gulf conflict.

There have been persistent reports of secret meetings between King Hussein and successive Israeli leaders. Certainly, the special relationship across the Jordan pre- dated the establishment of the state of Israel. As for Israeli contacts with King Hussein over the past 40 years, no documentary evidence has been made public. There have been persistent reports of such contacts, but neither side will acknowledge nor deny them. Israeli sources talk of 10 meetings each with Israel's Labour leaders: Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, Yigal Allon, Shimon Peres, Abba Eban. The Jordanians remain silent.

Today, the need for discretion will be gone. The ground was already broken by the meeting on 1 October between Mr Peres, Israel's Foreign Minister, and a man from the other side of the Jordan of similar vision for the long term future of the region, Crown Prince Hassan. Last week, Mr Peres became the first Israeli minister publicly to visit Jordan.

Since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli military occupation in 1987, the Jordanians and the Israeli Labour party have realised the untenability of their old common aim, that they should share responsibility for the West Bank. Both have come to accept the depth of Palestinian nationalism and its antagonism towards Jordanian or Israeli overlordship. The issues that separate them are comparatively simple to resolve. They include demarcating the border over 360 square kilometres of disputed territory south of the Dead Sea, and the issue of water. Last September, the day after Yasser Arafat and Mr Rabin signed their peace accords in Washington, the Jordanians and Israelis initialled their peace agenda. Yesterday, Mr Peres said a treaty could be signed within months.

The Jordanians have several main interests to consider. They have to seize opportunities offered without risking being accused of selling out Arab interests. Jordanians have taken heart that Syria has not been critical of the latest progress on the Jordanian-Israeli track. After all, coordination between Arab positions was intended to achieve harmony, not unison. And progress between Israel and Jordan might just help President Assad of Syria 'sell' a treaty with Israel to his people.