Netanyahu demands time to keep the peace for all

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On his first visit to Jordan as Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday argued that King Hussein should give him time to prove that his protestations of peace are more than a marketing exercise.

"This is a government that is committed to peace," Mr Netanyahu told a joint press conference. "Its ministers are committed to peace. And we shall act as one government, with one policy, for peace."

The statement was directed partly at his undisciplined colleagues, one of whom - ex-general Rafael Eitan - suggested only the day before that the contentious Jewish community of Hebron should be increased tenfold. But the Prime Minister offered no concrete indication that he was ready to give as well as to take in pursuit of peace.

On the stalled dialogue with Damascus, Mr Netanyahu said: "We're prepared to engage in peace negotiations with Syria on all outstanding matters. Our purpose is to achieve a formal peace with Syria. We believe that if there is goodwill on the side of Syria we can resume negotiations, and we're prepared to do so in the immediate future."

He suggested that his recent proposal to pull Israeli troops out of Southern Lebanon, in return for the disarming of the Hizbollah militia, could be a confidence-building measure. "It could," he said, "be a very good starting point to build a relationship of trust, a relationship of stability, a relationship of confidence between Israel and Syria that will serve us well in the other outstanding issues that we need to negotiate about."

Yet Mr Netanyahu gave no hint that he had dropped his entrenched resistance to trading all or any of the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967, for an agreement. Syria's President Hafez al-Assad has always insisted on land-for-peace as an essential condition.

The Israeli leader was equally circumspect on last week's unfreezing of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a decision that has provoked blood-curdling prophecies from the Palestinians and the Israeli left. "We want to see the natural growth of communities," he said, "Arab communities and Jewish communities."

But he added: "We did not stipulate what our policy would be in the future - when and if we shall build new settlements. When we say there should be free and natural growth, this doesn't mean that the government has removed its own staying hand."

Decisions on settlements would be concentrated in the hands of the Defence Minister and Prime Minister. But critics still fear that the "natural growth" formula is merely the first stage - expansion by salami tactics.

On Jerusalem, too, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, Mr Netanyahu was inflexible. Jerusalem, he said, would never be divided. He took his stand on the Oslo agreement with the Palestinians, which specified that there should be no change during the interim stage.

On this point, King Hussein put down a marker of disagreement."This is a subject that has to be discussed later, as agreed in the final status negotiations," he reminded Mr Netanyahu. "Let's hope that when the time comes there'll be enough imagination, goodwill, and enough vision to make Jerusalem ... something very, very special, for hundreds of millions of people - and also the essence of peace between our two peoples."

Mr Netanyahu also announced that another 5,000 Palestinian day labourers would be allowed to enter Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. This brings the total to 40,000.