Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Jordan on Sunday for talks with King Hussein against a backdrop of tensions over Israeli government plans to build a new Jewish neighborhood on Jerusalem’s eastern edge.
Although Netanyahu’s half-day visit was planned last month in recognition of Israel’s successful completion of an agreement with the Palestinians on an Israeli troop pullback from the West Bank city of Hebron, he found himself facing questions on less pleasant topics.
Officials said the king expressed concerns about Israel’s plan to build 6,500 new homes for Jewish residents on a hill on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. Palestinian leaders have strongly criticized the project, known as Har Homa, and accused Israel of seeking to surround East Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods.
Several have warned of renewed conflict if the Israeli plan goes forward. Hussein was more circumspect, at least in his public comments. Asked about the controversial project at a news conference with Netanyahu after their meeting, the king said only that he hoped nothing will occur to “explode the emotions” on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem--over which both Israel and the Palestinians have made sovereignty claims.
“We have to think with our minds and hearts,” Hussein said.
Netanyahu has said he will proceed with the development, although he has thus far avoided setting a date for construction. The Israeli parliament is expected to debate the issue this week.
On Sunday, Netanyahu reiterated a recent promise that his government will build homes for Arab residents of Jerusalem as well as Jews and improve infrastructure in the eastern, traditionally Arab, neighborhoods of the city. But he also stressed that Israel reserves the right to build new Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a statement that was certain to displease his Jordanian hosts.
In 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a treaty that ended their state of war, and Hussein in January played a crucial, last-minute role in helping to broker the Hebron accord. But the king, who enjoyed a close friendship with assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has not shied from criticizing his successor.
Nonetheless, the Israeli leader might have hoped his visit to a rain-soaked Amman, the Jordanian capital, would provide a respite from at least one of the political storms brewing at home.
Under pressure from rightist members of his coalition to proceed with the Har Homa plan and from Palestinians and other Arabs to stop it, Netanyahu also is beset by speculation here about his role, if any, in a growing scandal over possible corruption in his government’s appointment last month of an attorney general.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing. But given the troubles facing him, an editorial in the daily newspaper Maariv noted Sunday, “One should hope that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t ask King Hussein today for political asylum.”
For the last month, police have been investigating allegations that senior officials in Netanyahu’s office conspired to appoint an attorney general who would reduce pending criminal charges against a political ally. The attorney general, lawyer Roni Bar-On, resigned less than a day after taking office.
After a warning by police last week that his statements on the matter could be used against him, Netanyahu hired a lawyer over the weekend who immediately mounted a spirited media campaign to defend his new client.
“I am not representing a lonely man. I am representing a very self-confident man,” Yaakov Weinrot told Israel’s Army Radio in one of several interviews. “He is certain the police will prove his innocence in this investigation.”