Jordan and Syria to hold high-level talks
Saudi Arabia, seeking to heal some of the rifts in the fractured Arab world, has arranged a high-level meeting between Jordanian and Syrian officials. Zaid Rifai, Jordan's prime minister, and Abdel-Rauf al-Kasm, Syria's prime minister, are scheduled to meet today in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
Relations between the two states have been strained since Jordan's King Hussein aligned himself last year with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat. Syria calls Mr. Arafat a traitor to the Palestinians. The Jordanians and Mr. Arafat have attacked the Syrians as serving Israel's aims in Lebanon.
The meeting takes on added significance because it comes at a time when King Hussein's year-long effort to restart the peace process seems hopelessly stalled.
The Saudis announced the meeting Saturday, after an Arab summit reconciliation team led by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah visited Amman and Damascus.
Jordanian officials say it could be the start of a rapprochement between Jordan and its northern neighbor. They also have expressed frustration over the failure of their joint initiative with Arafat to produce results.
``It is a good time for the Syrians to make some sort of offer to the Jordanians, to sow some confusion and doubts,'' said one Western diplomat.
King Hussein is due to meet with President Reagan in Washington in less than two weeks. The Jordanians have been bitterly disappointed by the Reagan administration's failure to send an envoy to meet with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation before the King's visit.
Analysts here speculated that the Jordanians might welcome the opportunity of meeting with the Syrians as a way of demonstrating to the Americans that they could pursue other political options, should the American-brokered peace process breakdown.
But Jordanian officials were cautious Sunday about the chances for any sudden, dramatic improvement in relations between Jordan and Syria.
``There are no concrete proposals on the table,'' said one high-ranking official.
Pressure for reconciliation has come chiefly from Saudi Arabia.
``Saudi Arabia is the chief financial source for all three states -- Iraq, Jordan, and Syria,'' said one Jordanian political observer. ``The Saudis are hosting the Arab summit in December, and they want at least some sort of a superficial Arab reconciliation before the summit. If they tell these gentlemen to meet, they reply: `Yes sir. When and where?' ''
A substantive Jordanian-Syrian rapprochement, particularly if it included a Syrian pledge to distance itself somewhat from its support for Iran in the five-year-old Iran-Iraq war, could dramatically alter the political map in the region.
It is not clear how such a development would affect Jordan's relations with the PLO or hamper the chances for peaceful negotiations getting under way with Israel. The Syrians, who are striving to achieve military parity with Israel, have maintained a consistently hard-line stance against negotiations before Israel withdraws from the territories it has occupied since 1967.
The Jordanians have pursued much more moderate policies, but their approach has lost credibility in the Arab world since the Reagan administration decided to delay a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy and a joint Jordanian-Palestinain team.
Jordanian officials have said that they view the meeting as essential if the peace process is to move forward. They seem to doubt that the meeting will be held at all now, given American reservations about both its participants and its purpose.
``If the meeting is not held, then the moderates in the Arab world will shut up,'' warned one Jordanian government official. ``We will not be in an easy position. We will go to the Arab summit in Saudi Arabi and the Syrians will say, `See, they got nothing from the Americans. Our way is best.' What are we going to say to that?'
``The Jordanians say, `Look at what we have done, how far we have brought the PLO. Now we need a little help,' '' said one Western diplomat. ``They aren't getting any help.''
According to Jordanian sources, the Americans have two objections to meeting with the joint delegation: They don't like the composition of the proposed team, and they fear that the meeting will not lead to direct negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian team.
American diplomatic sources in the Middle East and in Washington have confirmed that the Reagan administration is concerned that the meeting between Mr. Murphy and a joint Arab team will produce only US recognition of the PLO and not direct peace talks with Israel.
Such a result, American and Israeli officials argue, would only strengthen the PLO and expose Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres to attacks from the hard-line Likud-bloc half of his government.
Likud strategists have said openly that they would attack Mr. Peres if the Murphy meeting took place, on the grounds that Peres had ``allowed'' the US to break a 10-year-old agreement with Israel that it would not negotiate with the PLO.
Some American diplomats still say they are hopeful King Hussein's scheduled meeting with President Reagan on Sept. 30, preceded by a meeting between Reagan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, will produce some sort of breakthrough that will enable Murphy to return to the region and meet with a joint delegation.
Hussein traveled to Cairo on Saturday on an unannounced visit to President Mubarak hours before the scheduled meeting with the Syrians was announced. No details were available on what the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders discussed.
Mubarak has supported the King's peace initiative from its inception, and has worked behind the scenes to urge American concessions and Israeli flexibility.