Strong on the Law : Running in Place


What Jordanian officials had earlier indicated would be a showdown between King Hussein and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has turned out instead to have been yet another inconclusive confrontation that failed to find common ground on a peace policy toward Israel. Arafat emerged after two days of talks in Amman trumpeting the familiar line that he and his segment of the PLO are still major players in any Middle East peace game, with interests and demands that no one dare ignore. From Jordan there came only a bland statement that didn’t even try to hint that any agreement had been reached.

A disappointment, perhaps, but hardly a shock. The great surprise would have been if Arafat had accepted proposals that he renounce terrorism and violence and accept Israel’s right to a secure existence, thus bolstering his claim to become a responsible participant in any peace process. But Arafat, weakened though he is by the PLO’s internal divisions and its loss of international status, knows that he still holds some big chips. Hussein doesn’t want to open negotiations with Israel over the future of the West Bank without the blessing of a recognized Palestinian leadership. So long as Arafat’s claim to that role continues to be accepted, he is in a position to block what Hussein might want to do.

Hussein’s interest in opening talks with Israel parallels the interest displayed by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in talking with Jordan.Peres’ speech to the United Nations last week proposing conciliation with Jordan elicited a remarkably positive response from Hussein, even as it sent tremors of anger and concern through the right-wing members of Israel’s Cabinet and Knesset. Peres left open the door to participation in any talks by Palestinians who support the PLO, provided they have no record of terrorism. The significance of that offer should be clear to Hussein as well as to Arafat. If an alternative leadership emerges that, in the Palestinian context, has acceptable credentials, then Peres won’t say no to talking with them.


Any such meeting, or even the prospect of one, would almost certainly shatter the governing coalition in Israel and force elections either to endorse or reject a political and territorial compromise on the West Bank. Peres seems ready to welcome that test, confident that confronted with a real opportunity for peace most Israelis would support moving ahead.

But Peres, like Hussein, has for the present pretty much run out of room to maneuver. If the Hussein-Arafat meeting had turned out more to the king’s liking, the opportunity to take the next step toward negotiations would certainly have presented itself. The failure of that meeting leaves two national leaders who are ready to talk peace sadly unable to do so, because the people who live on the land between their countries are still without an acceptably moderate voice to speak in their behalf.