Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, in what was seen as a thinly veiled endorsement of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, called Sunday on Israeli Arabs to “push forward the peace process” by voting in Israel’s parliamentary elections next month.
Arafat issued the appeal after a one-day summit meeting in Jordan with King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a meeting that an Egyptian government spokesman afterward asserted would mark a turning point in the long and largely frustrated search for peace in the Middle East.
The meeting in the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba on Saturday was brokered by Mubarak in hopes of reconciling Hussein’s and Arafat’s differences over the peace process in advance of the Israeli elections Nov. 1 and what is expected to be a watershed meeting of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s supreme decision-making body, in Algiers on Nov. 12.
In recent days, Egyptian officials have been stressing Mubarak’s belief that the outcome of these two events, along with the U.S. presidential elections Nov. 8, will be pivotal factors in shaping the prospects for progress in Mideast peace efforts over the coming year.
It was not clear, despite a flurry of optimistic but generally vague comments by Egyptian, Jordanian and PLO officials, how much progress had really been made toward resolving the deep mistrust and hostility that have characterized Jordanian-PLO relations since Hussein abrogated a joint peace initiative with Arafat two years ago. No final communique was issued after the meeting, despite Egyptian hopes that an agreement on enough issues could be reached to produce one.
However, a clear consensus did seem to emerge to temporarily subordinate Jordanian-PLO differences to the need to present a united Arab front on peace negotiations with Israel in advance of the Israeli elections.
“The Aqaba trilateral summit is a highly important turning point in the history of the Palestinian question and the peace effort,” Mamdouh Beltagi, Mubarak’s spokesman, told reporters. “It should prove to all regional and international parties that there is an Arab front ready for negotiations, that three key Arab parties are in agreement about the necessity of peace and . . . (are) ready to begin the negotiating process,” he said.
This effort to project a unified and credible pan-Arab approach toward peace talks in turn reflects the importance that Egypt, Jordan and the PLO all attach to an electoral victory in Israel by Peres’ Labor Alignment.
As the closely fought campaign nears its conclusion, senior Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian officials have been making it increasingly clear that they view a Labor victory as the only real hope for the peace process.
Peres has pledged that, if elected, he will work for the convening of an international Middle East peace conference--the negotiating format favored by the Arab states. Labor’s electoral rival, the Likud Bloc of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, is opposed to an international conference and rejects the “land-for-peace” formula that Labor advocates as a means of ending Israel’s increasingly costly rule over 1.5 million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Hussein, appearing on American television with Peres last week, praised the Labor leader’s position on a peace conference as “a step forward” and warned that a victory by Shamir would be “an absolute disaster.”
Arafat, who with Mubarak flew from Jordan to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on Sunday, echoed this assessment in a more subtle way by appealing to Israeli Arabs to turn out in force and vote on election day. Arabs with Israeli citizenship--as opposed to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip--represent 12% of the Israeli electorate, and the PLO chairman suggested that they could be important swing votes.
He did not mention Peres by name, an omission which, given the historical enmity between Israelis and Palestinians, was seen as an admission that the PLO’s endorsement was not likely to boost Labor’s chances at the polls. However, in what appeared to be a clear reference to the Labor Alignment, he called upon Israeli Arabs to cast their ballots for the party that “can push forward the peace process.”
Meeting With Iraqi
Arafat and Mubarak met later in the day with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, after which the Egyptian leader flew back to Cairo while Arafat remained in Baghdad, where the PLO’s military command is headquartered.
Mubarak told reporters upon his return that the Aqaba talks had resolved a number of differences between Jordan and the PLO, especially over the question of an eventual confederation between Jordan and a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“They are in agreement on this and Abu Ammar (Arafat) has announced that he is for a confederal union with Jordan,” Mubarak said in response to a question.
However, a senior PLO source involved in the Aqaba talks later contradicted the president’s remarks, saying that no final decision on a confederation had been reached.
Proposals for a confederation, which might be more acceptable to Israelis than an independent Palestinian state, appeared to fall apart last July when Hussein, expressing his frustration with both the PLO and Israel, severed Jordan’s administrative and legal ties to the West Bank.
Idea of Confederation
While both Arafat and Hussein had agreed to the idea of a confederation in principle, differences over the scenario that would lead up to it contributed to the Jordanian-PLO break.
PLO sources said at the time that Arafat wanted to first establish an independent Palestinian state, which would later enter into some kind of confederation with Jordan. Arguing that this scenario was bound to be rejected by Israel, Hussein unsuccessfully sought to persuade the PLO to negotiate for a confederation that might someday lead to a Palestinian state.
The senior PLO source said that, while the Aqaba talks were “very positive,” no new decisions on confederal proposals were reached. He added that any agreement on a confederation would, in any case, have to be approved by the Palestine National Council, which is expected to ratify a declaration of Palestinian independence when it meets next month.
However, the source confirmed that the confederation proposal was alive again and said the PLO resurrected it as a means of keeping the so-called “Jordan option” open.
A major question, which no one appeared willing to answer at this stage, was what concessions Hussein and Arafat may have promised one another in order to revive the Jordan option at the Egyptian-brokered talks. However, the pressure put on the Arab side by the Israeli elections and the desire to avert a Likud victory was clearly the major catalyst for the Jordanian-PLO rapprochement, diplomats said.