Accompanied by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, PLO leader Yasser Arafat went to Jordan on Saturday to seek a critically timed reconciliation with King Hussein over Middle East peace tactics in advance of Israel’s general elections next month.
Reports from Aqaba, the Jordanian port where the three leaders met, indicated that the discussions were focusing on a revival, in some form, of the so-called Jordanian option that Hussein all but shelved last July, when he announced he was severing all of his kingdom’s ties to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“This meeting is aimed at coordinating Arab positions so that we can move forward quickly to convening a peace conference,” Arafat was quoted as saying upon his arrival with Mubarak in Aqaba.
In a dispatch from Aqaba, Reuters news agency quoted Osama Baz, director of Mubarak’s office for foreign affairs, as saying that the meeting was intended to have an impact on the Israeli election.
“We want the Israeli voter, whether Arab or Jew, to understand where his specific interest lies,” Baz said. “Let him know when he casts his vote that there is an Arab partner ready for negotiations. The voter faces the issue of war and peace. If he wants peace, the Arab side is ready.”
The previously unannounced visit was Arafat’s first to Jordan since the king’s announcement, which was widely viewed at the time as an attempt to force the Palestine Liberation Organization to come to terms with Jordan over the peace process or, failing that, to undermine its credibility among Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
Arafat flew with Mubarak to Aqaba from Cairo early Saturday, and they are expected to return here by early today.
In Cairo, a senior Foreign Ministry source said that Egypt had been trying to arrange the Hussein-Arafat summit for some time, with “the aim of achieving a reconciliation . . . that will bring King Hussein back into the peace process.”
At the same time, the official indicated that the timing of the reconciliation was crucial to what is understood to be a low-key but concerted effort by Arab moderates to help Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres win Israel’s Nov. 1 elections.
Peres, head of Israel’s Labor Alignment, is campaigning on a pledge to convene an international peace conference, at which Jordan and the Palestinians would also be represented, to settle the Middle East conflict. This is also the approach favored by Jordan, Egypt and Arafat’s wing of the PLO.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s hard-line Likud Bloc, which is leading Labor in most Israeli election polls, is opposed to an international conference and refuses to consider territorial concessions in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip in return for peace.
“A victory by Shamir would be a disaster for the peace process,” a senior Egyptian official said recently, echoing the Arab consensus as election day nears in Israel.
While primarily directed against the PLO, Hussein’s July 31 decision to sever ties with the West Bank also undercut Peres, whose peace proposals had relied heavily on the Jordanian option.
At the time, Hussein indicated that, in foreclosing on this option, he was hoping to pressure both Israel and the PLO into realizing that they must negotiate directly with one another.
However, this strategy seems to have backfired in both Israel, where Likud’s position is now seen as having been strengthened by the king’s decision, and in Jordan itself, where the move away from the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been followed by a proportionate decline in much-needed Arab aid. Thus, having pulled the rug out from under Peres, Hussein now seems to be trying to slip it discreetly beneath his own feet, analysts said.
The effort to help Peres is discreet, these analysts added, because any open Arab endorsement of Labor could also easily misfire. “If you were running for election in Israel, the last thing you’d want is Yasser Arafat’s political endorsement,” one diplomat noted.
However, senior Arab officials and Western diplomats say the desire to avert an outright Likud victory was a key factor behind several recent Arab decisions, among them:
-- Agreement by the PLO to postpone a meeting of the Palestine National Council, the organization’s parliament in exile, until after the Israeli elections.
-- A decision by Egypt not to press Israel to implement a recent arbitration ruling on Taba, a disputed Sinai beach resort, until after the elections, so that controversy in Israel over its return to Egyptian sovereignty won’t become a campaign issue.
-- An interview on American television last week with King Hussein, who praised Peres’ peace proposals and sought to revive the Jordanian option--reportedly after secret consultations with one of Peres’ senior aides. In the interview, Hussein said a Shamir victory would be an “absolute disaster” for the peace process.
Egyptian officials said they could not predict the outcome of the Aqaba summit beyond the likelihood that it will result in some degree of improvement in Jordanian-PLO relations. However, one official said that Egypt hopes that the outcome could be “helpful to the pro-peace elements in Israel” before the elections.
The outcome of the summit is also seen as crucial to another upcoming event, the Palestine National Council meeting now scheduled for Nov. 10-14 in Algiers.
The meeting is expected to ratify a declaration of provisional independence for the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and to approve a new political strategy on steps toward recognition of Israel and PLO participation in eventual peace talks.
Egypt, Jordan and other Arab moderates have also urged Arafat to use this occasion to unequivocally accept Israel’s right to exist by endorsing U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
The PLO, however, is split between moderates and hard-liners whose divisions on this issue mirror, in many ways, those between Labor and Likud in Israel.
Along with the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, the results of the Israeli elections and the Palestine National Council meeting are seen as pivotal factors in shaping and determining the prospects for progress in the Middle East peace process over the coming year, Egyptian officials said.
“What we are trying to do now,” one senior Egyptian official said, “is to create an opportunity for all sides to make the right statements and the right moves toward peace.”