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NEWS ANALYSIS : BRIDGING THE RIVER JORDAN : Treaty Places Another Piece in the Mideast Puzzle


AQABA, Jordan — Shortly after the shooting stopped in the 1973 Middle East War, Israelis told each other that they could not know which Arab state would first make peace with Israel but they were certain which would be second--Jordan.

It took more than 15 years after the 1979 signing of the Egypt-Israel pact, but the prophecy was fulfilled Wednesday in an emotional ceremony along the sunbaked border as Israel and Jordan signed the region's second formal peace treaty.

The hostility between Israel and Jordan has never been quite as hard-edged as the animosity between Israel and its other neighbors. Moreover, Jordan and Israel are joined by geography in a way that seems to demand cooperation if either nation is to reach its full economic potential.

At the same time, King Hussein, Jordan's cautious monarch, was reluctant to get too far ahead of the Arab consensus.

He showed no inclination to be a precedent-setter, and he never even came close to copying Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who was shunned and isolated by the Arab world after he made peace with Israel.

That Hussein is willing to move now dramatizes a shifting post-Cold War reality: Syria no longer has a superpower patron to support its former policy of bullying Jordan and other Arab states into refusing to make a separate peace with Israel until all Arab countries were ready for a comprehensive settlement.

But it is also a victory for Israel's generation-old policy of dealing with the Arab countries one at a time, even when that approach seemed to be leading nowhere.

The way the Israeli government sees it, it is easier to negotiate a treaty bridging the differences between Israel and a single Arab state than it is to draft language that all Arab countries will accept. And, at least as important, if one Arab government makes peace with Israel, it increases the pressure on all the others to come around eventually or be left behind.

The different Israeli and Arab approaches to peacemaking produced years of stalemate after the signing of the Israel-Egypt pact.

Serious negotiations did not really get started until October, 1991, when all of the parties to the conflict met at a U.S.-brokered peace conference in Madrid.

That gathering was carefully balanced to permit the Israelis to claim that it was a series of bilateral negotiations and the Arabs to say it was a comprehensive conference.

But in the end, the scale was tilted toward the Arab approach.

When Yitzhak Rabin was elected Israeli prime minister--succeeding Yitzhak Shamir, who led the delegation to Madrid--he announced that he would continue with the Madrid process, although he opposed its emphasis on dealing with all the Arab states at once.

In practice, Rabin simply ignored the Madrid focus and sought to take on the Arabs one at a time.

His first priority was Syria, but when that approach seemed to lead to a dead end, he reached toward an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Israel-PLO agreement has not met the expectations of either side, but it helped clear the way for Israel and Jordan to reach the full-scale peace treaty signed Wednesday.

The pact with Jordan is an achievement for Israel on its face.

But it also upsets Syria and the PLO, a situation that the Israelis consider an added benefit.

Both Syrian President Hafez Assad and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat objected to the Israel-Jordan deal, but in a much more restrained fashion than might have been the case a few years ago.

Katyusha rockets, believed to have been fired by the Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia from southern Lebanon, struck northern Israel just before the Israel-Jordan ceremony began, but they caused little damage.

Israeli officials concede privately that the rockets were probably intended to miss, delivering a message without risking a major conflict.

However, Assad may be in a petulant mood when he meets President Clinton today in Damascus. U.S. officials hope that the Clinton-Assad talks will help to advance the peace process, but they admit that they do not know what Assad will do.

U.S. officials believe that Assad is more concerned about building a relationship with Washington than making peace with Israel. So Clinton is expected to emphasize that, unless Assad climbs aboard the peace bandwagon, he risks alienating Washington.

The PLO objects to a provision of the Israel-Jordan treaty recognizing Jordan's role as "custodian" of the Islamic holy places in East Jerusalem.

The PLO, which covets the predominantly Arab sector of Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, objected emotionally.

Israel agreed to the provision because it was an easy way to give Hussein a new benefit of peace and, perhaps more important, because it sent a clear message to the PLO that Israel was determined to maintain its hold on all of Jerusalem.

Since the signing of the Israel-PLO agreement at the White House more than a year ago, the Israeli authorities have been ambivalent in their relationship with the organization.

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