Leading Article: Israel and Jordan take the next step

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SUDDENLY the Middle East talks are on the move again after appearing to make no progress since last September's agreement between Israel and the PLO. Today, King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel are due to shake hands on the White House lawn in Washington. Yesterday President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt flew unexpectedly to Syria for talks with President Hafez al-Assad in an attempt to break the deadlock in negotiations between Syria and Israel.

The fact that Israeli leaders have had regular contacts with King Hussein since 1948 does not diminish the importance of their public appearance together in Washington. King Hussein has never before felt secure enough to break ranks openly with other Arab countries in the search for a peace settlement. He appears to have changed his mind under American pressure.

The Americans have promised to write off about USdollars 950m of Jordanian debt and help to modernise his army. His economy is in bad shape, and he needs to rehabilitate himself in Washington after his disastrous stance in the Gulf War. He has been irked by the lack of progress in his own talks with the PLO and by the deadlock in Israel's talks with Syria. In contrast, he has made good progress in technical talks with Israel on land and water rights, as a result of which Israel is expected to give up 145 square miles of land and allow him to take more water from the rivers Yarmuk and Jordan.

King Hussein may be relying on President Mubarak to prevent Syria being left too far behind in the negotiations, but he is taking a risk. His Palestinian exiles, like those of Syria, have gained nothing from the semi-autonomous regions granted to Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho. They, and many Jordanians, will remain suspicious of a deal that seems not to win enough from Israel. It will also be difficult to persuade President Assad that his negotiating position has not been weakened by Jordan's decision to move faster.

In all Middle East negotiations there are many slips between cups and lips. It remains possible, therefore, that a handshake on the White House lawn may create only an illusion of progress, like President Clinton's meeting with President Assad in January. Although Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, has predicted a peace treaty within a few months, Jordanian officials are understandably more cautious. President Clinton will have to continue pulling all the levers at his disposal if he is to gain the foreign policy success he needs.