Jordan ruler promotes peace in 1st visit to Israel

King Abdullah's trip kept low key in deference to Arab sensitivities

April 24, 2000|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM -- Sailing across the Gulf of Aqaba in his royal yacht, Jordan's King Abdullah IIpaid his first visit to Israel yesterday to promote Mideast peace and better economic cooperation between his Arab kingdom and the Jewish state.

Leaving behind the disguises with which he has stirred up Jordan during his first year as monarch, the king came with a characteristic message of optimism about peace but did not hide his displeasure that the peace treaty between Israel and his country has not produced more dividends.

"Five and a half years after the treaty, the potential for cooperation is great," he said upon arriving in the Israeli resort town of Eilat with his wife, Queen Rania.

In the four-hour summit, King Abdullah became the first Arab head of state to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Barak's home turf. They briefly toured a high-tech fish farm, dined together, and oversaw a series of diplomatic and economic meetings in Eilat.

The visit, important for Israel as a show of solidarity with an Arab ally, was originally scheduled for February. It was postponed because of tensions in the peace process and intensified fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon.

When he finally did come, the king kept the visit fairly low profile in deference to Arab sensitivities. Significantly, it did not take place in Israel's capital, divided Jerusalem, and it received but scant attention in Jordan's official press.

Like his late father, Abdullah has walked a very delicate line in the 14 months since he emerged from near obscurity to assume the right to the throne just days before King Hussein died of cancer.

Traveling throughout the Mideast, the British- and American-educated former army officer has worked hard to patch up relations with other Arab leaders that became strained during his father's half-century in power.

Yet, never forgetting Jordan's vulnerability in a tough neighborhood, he has also embraced his father's peace with Israel and tried to mediate between the Arabs and Jordan's powerful Jewish neighbor to protect the stability of Jordan and his regime.

Having rekindled Jordan's own relations with Syria, King Abdullah is credited with helping to restart negotiations between Israel and Syria late last year. In recent months, however, those relations have cooled just as the peace talks have stalled.

During his hours in Israel, the king praised Barak as a "courageous man [with] a tremendous responsibility." And he said he remained optimistic about the potential for peace between Israel and both the Palestinians and Syria.

The Israeli-Palestinian talks are scheduled to resume Sunday in Eilat, with an eye toward a May deadline for a framework agreement and a September target for a "final status" treaty on the fate of Jerusalem, refugees, borders of a Palestinian state and other issues.

The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are of utmost importance to the stability of Jordan. Palestinians make up more than 60 percent of Jordan's population and they are waiting to see whether they will be able to return to their ancestral villages or receive compensation.

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