Like chess grandmasters contemplating their next moves, the three Arab leaders with the most to lose if peace efforts collapse began formulating a united strategy Wednesday to deal with the new Israeli government.
“The peace process must continue. There is no turning back, there is no other logical course that can be taken,” Jordan’s King Hussein declared in his modern palace overlooking the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Israeli resort town of Eilat.
The election last week of right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister unsettled many Israelis but created far more consternation among Israel’s three main Arab partners - Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Hussein cautioned Israel to honor its commitments to the Palestinians, including next week’s anticipated redeployment of troops from the West Bank town of Hebron, where 400 Israeli settlers live among more than 100,000 Arab residents.
Arafat raised the issue of “Holy Jerusalem,” the most intractable problem in reaching a long-term peace agreement.
“We are approaching to declare, and very soon, our independent Palestinian state with Al-Quds (Jerusalem) as its capital,” Arafat said in English at a news conference after the meeting.
But the three Arab leaders focused their immediate concern on Netanyahu’s first moves once he forms a new government.
Except for a report from a close adviser that Netanyahu will put peace talks with Syria on indefinite hold, the right-wing Likud leader has not telegraphed his intentions to the Arabs nor to the Israeli public.
There was a hint of his opposition to the policies of his predecessor, Shimon Peres, as thousands of cheering Israeli settlers danced Wednesday in Hebron in celebration of Netanyahu’s victory.
A letter from Netanyahu was read to the crowd:
“I am full of appreciation for your Zionist and pioneering work which continues the Jewish presence in the oldest Jewish city in the world - the older sister of Jerusalem.” Netanyahu’s office confirmed the letter. The Peres government essentially had halted settlement activity.
Later Wednesday, Netanyahu’s office released a statement in response to the Arab leaders’ comments, saying he “believes the comments made at the Aqaba summit on advancing a process of peace in the Middle East should be welcomed.”
The statement was more pointed in answering the PLO chairman:
“As for what Yasser Arafat said, this is not the first time we are hearing this kind of a declaration from him. It is clear the prime minister-elect … has a different view of the outline of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s view is known as opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
The new premier’s hawkish campaign rhetoric about slowing implementation of peace agreements has not been heard since his election, possibly because he has been busy negotiating with his political partners on the shape of the new government.
Speculation continued about a national unity government that would include the Labor Party’s Peres. There were suggestions that Netanyahu might appoint Peres to a new, perhaps advisory, position overseeing peace negotiations.
At the Aqaba meeting, Mubarak and Hussein said they are confident Israel will honor its commitments and treaty obligations to the Palestinians.
Hussein added that the immediate issue is guaranteeing the rights of Palestinians on their own “national soil,” and he promised that Jordan would do nothing to delay that goal.
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