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Middle East: The King Says, Not Yet

5 minute read
William E. Smith

Hussein demands Israeli concessions and the P.L.O. ‘s support

He is sometimes described by tabloid newspaper writers as “the plucky little King,” but he is known to old Middle East hands as an accomplished tactician who has managed to hold on to the precarious throne of Jordan for the past 30 years. Last week King Hussein went to Washington for what the U.S. hoped would be a significant and perhaps historic meeting with President Reagan. There was a possibility that Hussein would announce, while still in Washington, that he was ready at last to join the Middle East peace negotiations that Israel and Egypt began in 1979. But it did not work out quite that way. Hussein told the President that he was not yet in a position to take part in the talks, although he held out the hope that he might soon be able to do so.

The King’s position at first appeared to be a disappointment for the Reagan Administration. The President had hoped that his proposals of last September, in which he called for a future relationship between Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, would lead to broader Arab participation in the peace process. He had also been encouraged by the Arab summit conference at Fez, Morocco, later in September, when there seemed to be interest in some aspects of the Reagan plan. More to the point, the Arab summit, by guaranteeing peace for “all states of the region,” went a long way toward acknowledging Israel’s right to exist. Finally, the President was aware that Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat had talked at length about future ties between the West Bank and Jordan.

The chief reason Hussein offered last week for his reluctance to join negotiations was that he could not be expected to make concessions at a time when Israel was aggressively pressing ahead with the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In fact, the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin may be quite pleased with the Arabs’ continuing refusal to negotiate. This gives the Israelis an excuse to proceed with their settlements program and to denounce the Reagan plan, which the Israeli government has opposed from the beginning.

To Reagan and his Secretary of State, George Shultz, the signs had been unusually auspicious. Hussein had publicly interpreted the Fez summit communique as a tacit recognition of Israel. During the past year he had repeatedly advised the P.L.O. that no Middle East settlement was possible without recognition of Israel. He had also sought a mandate from Arafat to join the negotiations on the P.L.O.’s behalf. Administration officials noted that, even as Hussein was conferring with Reagan last week, a chief aide to Arafat, Khalid al Hassan, was staying at the same hotel as Hussein and was being kept informed of the discussions by the Jordanian delegation. For once, the signs of a genuine breakthrough appeared to be at hand.

In his talks with President Reagan, the King explained that he could join the peace process only if he had the support of the Arab League and the P.L.O. At the very least, he said, he needed the P.L.O.’s tacit “acquiescence,” and he thought he could get it. He said he was encouraged by the support he was receiving from the moderate Arab states and from the Palestinians in the West Bank. But before he could make any final decision, the King told Reagan, Israeli forces would have to be withdrawn from Lebanon, and the U.S. would have to pressure Israel to modify its settlements policy in the West Bank. Hussein also tried to ascertain whether Reagan would remain fully committed to the proposals he advanced in September, even if it means opposing Israel in the midst of the 1984 U.S. election campaign. Reagan responded to Hussein that he was “deeply committed” to the plan.

Hussein also conferred with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger over his request for additional U.S. arms, including two squadrons of F-16 fighter bombers as well as air-to-air and antiaircraft missiles. The Administration was prepared to sell him the less advanced F-5G jet fighter (which, in a fascinating bit of bureaucratic legerdemain, has been renamed the F-20 to give it more sales appeal). But even this may prove difficult, given the sentiment in Congress against selling Jordan any new planes until it joins the negotiations. Nearly 60 Senators and 180 members of the House of Representatives have signed letters to this effect.

As it turned out, the President had some good news for his visitor: Israel and Lebanon had agreed to begin talks on the withdrawal of Israeli, Syrian and P.L.O. troops from Lebanon. The meetings, which will be held alternately in Khalde, south of Beirut, and in the Israeli border community of Qiryat Shemona, will deal with three issues: ending the state of belligerency between the two countries, making arrangements so as to keep any troops hostile to Israel out of southern Lebanon, and withdrawing the three foreign armies from the country. The Israeli position is that the removal of Israeli and Syrian forces could take place simultaneously, but only after the departure of the remaining P.L.O. units and the return of Israeli prisoners of war and the bodies of Israel’s war dead. Lebanon would negotiate separately with Syria and the P.L.O.

After his four days in Washington, King Hussein flew home to consult with Arafat and other Arab leaders. He is expected to return to Washington within the next month for another round of talks. He hopes by then or, at the very latest, by the time the P.L.O.’s de facto parliament, the Palestine National Council, meets in Algiers in a few weeks, to have received from Arafat the “acquiescence” he feels he needs before joining serious negotiations. —By William E. Smith. Reported by William Stewart/Beirut and Gregory H. Wierzynski/Washington

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