Rabin secretly met with King Hussein Sunday night, Israeli papers report

September 29, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reportedly met in secret with Jordan's King Hussein Sunday night, amid signs the monarch is worried about the Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

Mr. Rabin's meeting with the king -- on a boat in the Gulf of Eilat or the king's summer palace in nearby Aqaba -- was widely interpreted here as an attempt to soothe the fears of the monarch about the new Palestinian self-government.

King Hussein is worried that the creation of an entity run by the Palestine Liberation Organization will undermine his authority with the Palestinians who make up a majority of his country's population.

"He sees this as a direct threat against the Jordanian regime," said Dan Schueftan, a historian and Jordan specialist at Haifa University. "Once the PLO establishes itself on the West Bank and Gaza Strip . . . they can claim allegiance of the Palestinians on the East Bank" in Jordan.

The Jordanian monarch has expressed his disappointment about being left out of the negotiations between Israel and the PLO. He had contemplated postponing the Jordanian parliamentary elections scheduled for Nov. 8 while he gauges the effect of the pact on his country.

A palace spokesman in Amman said yesterday that the elections will go on as scheduled. But the government may require the Palestinians in Jordan to chose whether they will vote in the Jordanian elections or the scheduled elections for a council in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In effect, they would have to declare their allegiance.

Mr. Rabin's meeting with the king was widely reported in the Hebrew press here, despite official denials from both the Israeli and Jordanian governments.

Israeli prime ministers and their emissaries have often met the Jordanian monarch secretly in the past. But word of this meeting leaked out quickly from Israeli sources eager to demonstrate the end of Israel's ostracism by its Arab neighbors.

Only the leaders of Egypt and Morocco -- and Yasser Arafat of the PLO -- have ever appeared publicly with a head of the Jewish government.

The publicity over this meeting seemed to put Mr. Rabin's veracity into question. He bluntly denied Monday that the meeting had occurred, and he insisted in a radio interview that he had been at military maneuvers.

But even his top aides were hard-pressed to back up the prime minister's statement.

"The prime minister denied it. King Hussein denied it. So who am I to challenge this?" said Gad Ben-Ari, Mr. Rabin's spokesman.

According to the newspaper Ha'aretz, Mr. Rabin abruptly canceled a Sunday night appearance in Jerusalem, and all his top aides disappeared. The paper said they met with the king and Crown Prince Hassan on a boat in the Gulf of Eilat.

The Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv said the meeting took place nearby at the king's vacation palace in the seaside resort of Aqaba.

Another paper, Davar, said Mr. Rabin and his aides shuttled across

the border to attend the meeting in a gray van with blacked-out windows.

The secrecy "was a Jordanian request," said one aide. "We didn't have any interest in hiding it."

Yesterday, the official Jordanian news agency, Petra, reported that Prince Hassan left for the United States with a letter from King Hussein for President Clinton.

The agency gave no details about the letter.

King Hussein is in a delicate position. He must give public support to the Palestinian cause for the benefit of the Palestinians in his country. But he has long counted on Israel to oppose a Palestinian entity that could threaten his authority over his people.

"I think he's frightened stiff," said Dr. Schueftan. "Of course, he can't admit it."

Jordan has often been bitterly at odds with the PLO. After the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, the PLO established its base in Jordan and began exerting its authority over the Palestinians there.

The Palestinian refugees from the 1967 war joined previous refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. With a high birth rate, Palestinians now account for more than half the 4 million population in Jordan.

King Hussein lately has enjoyed popular support among the Palestinians in his country, many of whom now have Jordanian citizenship and are financially established. But the king's lineage -- the Hashemite Dynasty -- traditionally drew its support from the native Bedouins, and he has at times has been wary of the Palestinians.

In 1970, the king felt his regime was threatened by the PLO's growing power in Jordan. He waged battle with the PLO, killing thousands of PLO guerrillas and evicting the organization in a bloody purge Palestinians still call "Black September."

Although Jordan and Israel remain officially at war, they have had relative peace because of mutual interests: Jordan kept Israel's eastern border quiet, and Israel kept the pressure on the PLO.

"Jordan has an interest to know if its strategic status has changed in Israel's eyes," said Ha'aretz. "Jordan may be harmed . . . by the agreement."

Although Mr. Arafat has revived old suggestions of a confederation between a Palestinian entity on the west and east banks of the Jordan River, King Hussein has reacted warily to the idea.

"If you have one people, and two political elites, then one political elite is redundant," said Dr. Schueftan. "King Hussein does not feel like being redundant."

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