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Jordan's pursuit of Mideast peace fraught with risks

The assassination of a Jordanian diplomat in Turkey Wednesday was stark testimony to the risks involved in King Hussein's pursuit of peace with Israel. ``We are taking more risks than all the other parties combined,'' said one senior Jordanian official.

The killing, presumed to have been carried out by factions opposed to Jordan's peace moves, is bound to underscore the argument of some Jordanians who feel that the risks entailed in the King's pursuit of a settlement to the Mideast conflict outweigh chances for success.

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Not only do the Jordanians face the immediate threat of assassination attempts by pro-Iranian or pro-Syrian factions, strongly opposed to any negotiations with the Jewish state, but they also face the long-range political risks presented by the success or failure of talks with Israel.

At time of writing, no one had been arrested in connection with the shooting of Jordanian First Secretary Ziad Sati in Ankara. Two anonymous callers to news agencies reportedly claimed responsibility on behalf of Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), which is thought to be an umbrella Islamic fundamentalist group with ties to Iran.

Mr. Sati, regarded as a talented foreign-service diplomat, was related to the Jordanian chief of staff, a man known to have opposed King Hussein's alliance with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in pursuit of trading land for peace with Israel.

In Jordan, the Foreign Ministry quickly issued a statement saying such attacks would not change Jordanian foreign policy.

Jordan -- and the Palestinians -- want the West Bank and Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, returned to Arab control in exchange for peace.

Should the King fail to win back much of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, his pursuit of a peaceful settlement will be discredited. If he wins back much of the territory, he will have 1 million highly politicized Palestinians to contend with in the framework of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation.

There is little enthusiasm, either in official Jordanian circles or among the public, for the course the King has chosen. Jordanian officials say, rather, that Jordan is committed to pursuing a peaceful settlement to the Mideast situation because taking no action at all would be worse.

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``I asked the King a couple of months ago why he had decided that now was the time to push for a settlement,'' said one Western diplomat. ``He said that he felt that if he tried now, Jordan had a 75 percent chance of being lost [of losing]. And if he didn't try, there was a 100 percent chance of being lost.''

King Hussein is a generally popular ruler of a tiny, young desert nation with a volatile population mix. The King, a Bedouin who traces his descent from the Prophet Mohammed, rules a population that is more than 75 percent Palestinian in origin. In 1970, virtual civil war broke out in Jordan when the King moved to crush the PLO's infrastructure. The King and his Army won, and the PLO was expelled to Lebanon. The battles, however, deeply divided Jordanian society.

But now the King and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat have joined political forces to reach a negotiating table with Israel. On Feb. 11, the two leaders signed an agreement that stipulated that they would jointly pursue a peace initiative based on the concept of trading land for peace with Israel.

Diplomats in Amman insist that the King is determined to win back the West Bank by peaceful means. His alliance with Mr. Arafat, both Jordanians and diplomats say, was necessary to give negotiations with Israel credibility in the eyes of the Arab world. The Arabs recognize the PLO as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinians, and despite a series of damaging military losses, Arafat still has that mandate.

Privately, however, high-ranking Jordanian officials, some of whom are of Palestinian origin, acknowledge that there is no love lost between the King and the PLO.

Each side harbors bitter memories of the other. The PLO dubbed the 1970 civil war ``black September.'' The Jordanians remember Jordanian diplomats assassinated by PLO factions and, more recently, Arafat's failure in 1983 to join the King in pursuing a peace process based on a plan set forth by President Reagan in 1982.

A diplomat who saw the King the day Arafat pulled out of the April 1983 talks on jointly pursuing peace, said Hussein's eyes were filled with tears as he admitted his efforts to persuade Arafat to join him had failed.

One Jordanian official interviewed in Amman this week acknowledged that the Jordanians are still wary of how far Arafat is willing to go in pursuing negotiations.

The PLO chairman so far has managed to make the Feb. 11 agreement stick despite oposition within his own Al-Fatah faction in the PLO. He also managed to come up with a list of potential Palestinian negotiators to meet with Richard Murphy, the United States State Department envoy, this summer. The list was delayed for months while Arafat was squeezed between hardline demands of Al-Fatah and pressure from the Jordanians. The final list, according to one Western observer close to the process, was hammered

out by Jordanian Prime Minister Zaid Rifai and Arafat. The 22 names Arafat brought to the meeting were thinned to the seven passed on to the Americans.

All the names on the list presented to the Americans were of men closely aligned with, if not actually members of, Arafat's Al-Fatah organization. The composition of the list, one Western diplomat said, ``shows the lack of trust the Palestinians have in the Jordanians.'' Missing from the list were the names of prominent, pro-Jordanian West Bank personalities that both Israel and the Jordanians would probably have preferred.

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