JERUSALEM — Vice President George Bush got a taste of the other side of the Middle East story Tuesday as much of the Arab sector of Jerusalem shut down to protest U.S. policy in the region and Palestinian notables confronted him on the same subject during what an aide described as a "spirited and aggressive" meeting at the U.S. Consulate here.
The confrontations came on the third day of the vice president's scheduled 10-day, three-nation tour of the region. Today he flies to Jordan to meet with King Hussein.
In a comment that some sources, including officials in his own party, felt might embarrass the Jordanian monarch, Bush said Tuesday that after Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' milestone summit meeting in Morocco last week, "the next logical step, if it could be arranged, would be a direct meeting between King Hussein and the prime minister."
No Specific Proposals
Bush's aides later qualified the apparently off-the-cuff remark. They stressed that while it is U.S. policy to support face-to-face meetings to solve the Middle East conflict, the vice president does not see it as his role to propose specific meetings.
The moderate Hussein is under enormous pressure from other Arab nations not to strike a separate peace with Israel, and he has said he will not move without the involvement of Palestinian representatives and the sponsorship of the United Nations.
The United States and Israel--and, according to many analysts, Jordan as well--want to see an alternative Palestinian leadership arise in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to counterbalance Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Israel, labeling it a terrorist organization, adamantly refuses to deal with the PLO.
Efforts by those countries to encourage such a development, especially since Hussein's break with the PLO earlier this year, have caused rifts among the 1.3 million Palestinian residents of the occupied territories. Those rifts were apparent in the divided reaction of the Palestinian leaders invited to meet Bush on Tuesday.
American officials said that 18 Palestinians showed up for the 45-minute session, out of "28 or 29 invited." Best known among those boycotting the meeting were deposed Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natshe and Mohammed abu Zuluf, editor of the East Jerusalem newspaper Al Quds. The newspaper has recently adopted a tougher stance after years of being seen here as the mouthpiece of moderate Jordan in the occupied territories.
All the Palestinians who met with Bush are known as either pro-Jordanian or followers of the most moderate wing of the PLO.
'Conspiracy Against People'
Hard-line Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Monday condemned Bush's visit as "a completion of the Arab and American conspiracy against our people and its rights." They castigated "anyone who violates the national will and consensus and accepts the U.S. Consulate's invitation."
The hard-liners also condemned Peres' Moroccan summit meeting with King Hassan II as "a blow to our national rights and the PLO."
In a statement issued from its headquarters in Tunis on Monday, the PLO also assailed Bush's trip as "a plot" against the organization's goal of an independent Palestinian state.
The vice president told those Palestinians who came that he was pleased that so many had agreed to see him despite the boycott calls and death threats leveled against some of the participants by the Abu Nidal terrorist group.
"I know many of you are under some pressure for coming," his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, quoted Bush as telling the leaders during the closed meeting. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate the important signal to the United States that you want to discuss these issues with me."
Hanna Siniora, the moderate editor of the pro-PLO newspaper Al Fajr, told reporters after the meeting that he had attended to get a hearing for the Palestinian point of view. "Mr. Bush was very attentive," Siniora said. "He said the U.S. Administration is trying to do whatever it can to push the peace process. But at the same time, we told him this is not enough."
U.N. Resolutions Cited
Those attending urged the United States to recognize the PLO as the legitimate voice of the Palestinians. Bush responded, "If the PLO wants talks, just tell them to recognize (U.N. Resolutions) 242 and 338, and there will be talks."
The two U.N. resolutions implicitly recognize Israel's right to exist but are opposed by many Arabs because they make no declaration on the right of Palestinian self-determination.
Bush also told the Palestinians that his Israeli-guided tour through Jerusalem's walled Old City on Monday should not be seen as any kind of "signal."