King Hussein offered a dramatic gesture Tuesday in support of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as the Jordanian monarch made his first public visit to the West Bank in almost 30 years to discuss the troubled Mideast peace process.
Hussein, the first Arab leader to travel to the autonomous Palestinian area, said his landmark visit was intended to help speed the pace of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over Israel’s overdue withdrawal of its troops from the West Bank city of Hebron. But the king, who has been critical of Israeli delays in the Hebron redeployment, said he was not trying to pressure the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The problem lies in the slow pace of implementing what has been agreed upon,” Hussein said at a news conference with Arafat.
The king’s visit came as negotiations over Hebron reached a critical stage. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held another round of intensive, small group discussions in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Tuesday with formal negotiations expected to resume soon, perhaps as early as today in the Egyptian resort of Taba. But the two sides offered differing accounts of their progress.
Arafat was gloomy. “Until this point, there is no move forward in the negotiations,” he told reporters at his headquarters in this dusty desert town. “We don’t ask the impossible; we want what was signed to be implemented on the ground.”
Several Israeli officials and others close to the negotiations were more optimistic.
While some differences remained, these sources said, the two sides were making progress toward reaching a diplomatic formula that would resolve Israel’s security concerns while meeting Palestinian demands the Hebron agreement not be renegotiated.
Israel was scheduled to pull its troops out of most areas of the city in March, but delayed the withdrawal after a series of suicide bombings in Israel by Muslim extremists.
In his news conference, Arafat seemed exasperated with what he termed repeated Israeli demands for increased security arrangements for Hebron’s Jewish settlers.
And, in a suggestion quickly dismissed by Israeli and U.S. officials, Arafat said that, if it would calm Israel’s fears, he would be willing to accept an international military force, including U.S. troops, in Hebron.
“They (Israelis) are repeating security, security,” Arafat said. “I said, ‘OK, if you don’t trust the joint patrol units and you don’t trust your soldiers or our soldiers, OK, why not call upon an international presence with the participation of the American army?”’
David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu’s spokesman, said the suggestion was greeted in the prime minister’s office with “astonishment.” It, generally, has been disregarded.
In Washington, Defense Secretary William Perry told reporters, as he prepared to meet with Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, that there was no “active consideration” being given to the idea of an international force in Hebron.