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Idea of Jordanian-Palestinian State Wins Support : Mideast: The two Arab parties view confederation as a way around Israeli fears. Prime Minister Rabin is an obstacle.

July 17, 1993|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israelis and Palestinians, hoping to break the impasse in the Arab-Israeli peace talks, are discussing a Jordanian-Palestinian state in a move that could resolve the Palestinian problem and bring peace to the Middle East.

Saeb Erekat, deputy head of the Palestinian delegation to the negotiations, said on Friday that the Palestine Liberation Organization was exploring such a confederation as "a serious option" with Jordan. The two parties view a confederation as a way around Israeli fears of Palestinian independence and as the most practical political arrangement between Jordanians and Palestinians themselves.

"The first thing that comes to mind if we want to move to final status (of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip) is Jordanian-Palestinian relations," Erekat said, "and here confederation is not only the most promising but something that appeals deeply to many of our people."

At the same time, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is renewing his longtime advocacy of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation as the most practical compromise between Palestinian aspirations for independence and Israeli fears for its security.

Breaking away from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's pursuit of an agreement on Palestinian self-government, Peres on Tuesday suggested to the United States that a second track be opened to discuss the confederation as an alternative to Palestinian autonomy.

"A very rare situation has been created whereby all of the elements--Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel--are relating seriously to this solution," Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin told Haaretz, Israel's leading newspaper. "After 100 years of conflict, for the first time there seems to be appearing an agreed-upon solution."

The proposal will be high on the agenda when Secretary of State Warren Christopher visits the region, starting Aug. 1, in an effort to end the stalemate in the peace talks.

"As far as Israel is concerned," Erekat said, "we would like very much to hear from one man, and that's Rabin."

But Rabin wants to adhere to the current goal of the negotiations--an agreement on Palestinian self-government for a five-year period, with a second round of negotiations on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to follow.

"The prime minister believes that Israel must continue the negotiations with the Palestinians on an interim arrangement," Gad Ben-Ari, Rabin's spokesman, said. "Israel has no interest in discussing elements of a permanent solution at this stage, prior to the establishment of autonomy."

So far, the discussions about a confederation have been largely exploratory, taking place among Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians on a "what if" basis. But they acquired much greater significance with Peres' proposal that they be included in the formal Washington negotiations.

"A Palestinian-Jordanian confederation is not a simple concept, far from it, but it is a way around most of the obstacles we now face in the Israel-Palestinian negotiations," commented a senior Western diplomat who follows the talks closely. "This is something the Israelis had long wanted, for they trust Jordan and they trust (King) Hussein to control the Palestinians."

Erekat warned, however, that negotiations on confederation would necessarily involve the PLO. Israel has only begun to deal with the group privately, though there is a consensus emerging within the Cabinet and the governing Labor Party favoring direct talks.

Although still highly tentative, an effort to establish such a confederation would, in fact, bring major political shifts--a virtual reversal of positions developed over the past two decades--on all sides:

* For the Palestinians, independence and statehood have been regarded as the ultimate expression of their quest for national identity. For many, a confederation with Jordan would be little more than a return of the West Bank to a monarchy that they feel repeatedly oppressed and betrayed them from 1948 to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

* For Jordan, confederation means reassuming all the burdens of the Arab-Israeli conflict and acceptance of eventual Palestinian dominance, because Palestinians already constitute more than 60% of the kingdom's population. Yet if the Mideast conflict is resolved, Jordan will be better positioned, politically and economically, to benefit from peace.

* And for Israel, it would mean the definitive loss of the West Bank, now home to an estimated 120,000 settlers. There would be no period of autonomy when the question of sovereignty would remain open and Israeli troops would continue to patrol.

To Israelis and Palestinians, both increasingly frustrated with the fruitless negotiations in Washington, the idea of a confederation could offer the refreshing hope of not just a breakthrough but also a shortcut to final resolution of the Palestinian problem.

With that would come quick settlement of the overall Arab-Israeli conflict.

"The question is," Erekat said, "have we in 20 months proved to each other that the concept of an interim period (of autonomy, or self-government short of statehood) is not workable, is not doable and can complicate matters more?

"Maybe it is time to really see the possibilities of going directly towards the final status."

On Monday, the PLO agreed with Jordan to establish six committees to discuss relations between Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, looking initially toward the negotiations but beyond that toward future ministries in a confederation.

The committees will coordinate the Jordanian and Palestinian negotiating positions on borders and security, economic cooperation, water, refugees, Jerusalem and legislation, and then develop plans for a confederated state.

As sketched by Erekat, Palestine and Jordan would each have a parliament, an executive branch and courts, but would have joint bodies to handle foreign policy, security and other mutual concerns.

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