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With Jordan talks, Israel nears goal of peace with its Arab neighbors


JERUSALEM -- Israel is poised to achieve a goal it has sought since 1948 when Jordan becomes the third of its five hostile Arab neighbors to agree to a peace with the Jewish state.

Only Syria and its understudy, Lebanon, will remain among the front-line Arab states still officially at war with Israel if a peace treaty, as expected, comes after the Israel-Jordan summit July 25.

Israel's strategy to make peace one by one with the Arab states has claimed another success with the abrupt announcement Friday that Jordan's King Hussein will hold a first-ever public meeting with Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in Washington next week.

The Jordanian monarch raised the specter of the collapse of his own country if he did not move boldly toward peace with Israel.

"This country under pressure may collapse in one way or another," he said in a speech to a military unit, quoted by the state news agency Petra Friday night.

He warned that Jordan could "fragment to parts, a part in the north, a part in the south."

Such unusual doomsday talk is seen as hyperbole intended to rally support in Jordan for his public move toward Israel. The king does face a tumult of dangers inside and outside his Hashemite kingdom of 4 million.

A monarch with the longest survival but perhaps the weakest grip on his subjects of any current Middle East ruler, King Hussein has had to be nimble to avoid being a casualty of new realities from the peace talks.

Chief among them is the surprise deal struck between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization last September. Israel pledged to "recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people." Inadvertently or not, Israel thus anointed PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as the representative of about 60 percent of Jordan's population who are Palestinian.

King Hussein now feels he must act quickly to solidify his own arrangements with Israel and foil any expansion of influence eastward into Jordan by Mr. Arafat, with whom the king has had a long and bitter animosity.

King Hussein's move will displease Syria, which has been trying to hold a united Arab front to negotiate with Israel from more strength.

The Jordanian monarch lashed out defensively on Friday. Syria had little concern for Jordan's problems, he implied.

"Coordination appears to me to work as they want it and at the time they want," he said.

This is precisely the outcome Israel wanted -- and the Arab states feared -- when they started the peace talks in Madrid in October 1991. The Arabs insisted that there must be negotiations for a "comprehensive peace" that would include them all: the Palestinians, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Israel preferred individual treaties such as the one it struck in 1979 with Egypt after the Camp David meetings.

But with the Madrid talks going nowhere, the Palestinians under Mr. Arafat secretly struck their own deal with Israel last September. Now Jordan is following.

"This is undoubtedly a major Middle East breakthrough," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said on Israel Radio yesterday.

Israel fought the Arabs to establish its state on the Mediterranean coast in 1948. It again fought wars with Arab neighbors in 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982, and faced an uprising by Palestinians that began in 1987.

The prospect of ending that long violent pattern comes from a mix of events: fatigue from warfare, the loss of the Soviet Union as an Arab sponsor, pressure from the remaining superpower, the United States, and the temptation of an economic boom from peace.

Indeed, the United States reportedly will forgive nearly $1 billion in debt from Jordan as a sweetener to get King Hussein to the summit.

Both Israeli and Arab leaders fear that this confluence of events may not last long -- perhaps no more than a year.

All face internal opposition to peace agreements. Mr. Rabin will confront a noisy right-wing opposition when he returns to the campaign trail next year for elections in 1996.

His narrow government coalition will be hard-pressed to take any bold steps during a campaign.

Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians all have Muslim fundamentalist forces who at any time could spoil peace agreements through assassination or violence. Yesterday, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan declared the date of the proposed summit a "day of mourning." Syria has a population still indoctrinated to consider Israel an arch-foe.

Furthermore, the major leaders, who have fought each other so long they are tired of it, are vulnerable to the years.

Mr. Rabin is 72; Mr. Peres, the architect of the peace plans, is 71. King Hussein is only 58 but has had a bout with cancer. Syrian President Hafez el Assad is 64 and perpetually frail. Mr. Arafat is 65 and has been in and out of the hospital.

Younger successors to any of them may be less war-weary and less ready to make peace.

With Jordan's summit move, pressure will mount on Syria to reach an agreement with Israel so that it will not be left out of any economic rewards.

U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher is hoping to capitalize on that opportunity as he arrives in the region today.

"The intense negotiations have entered a new and important phase," Mr. Christopher said. "It's now important, really its essential, that they move forward in these discussions. In the end peace must come from direct negotiations between the parties."

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