PM 'intent' to hold peace negotiations

Abdullah urges endorsement of 2 states; Netanyahu says two spoke of ways to expand the circle of peace.

Netanyahu Abdullah 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
Netanyahu Abdullah 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah II sent out starkly different messages following an unannounced meeting between the two in Aqaba on Thursday. Netanyahu called it an "excellent" meeting, while Abdullah released a statement spelling out the demands he had made, including that Israel immediately declare its commitment to a two-state solution. The talks with Abdullah, which came during a lightning visit to Jordan, took place three days after Netanyahu traveled to Sharm e-Sheikh to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and four days before his scheduled meeting in Washington with US President Barack Obama. Netanyahu, after meeting Pope Benedict XVI in Nazareth on Thursday afternoon following the prime minister's return from Jordan, said it was "no coincidence" that he was meeting the two Arab leaders before Obama. "I wanted the first meetings in my first month as prime minister to be with our peace partners, Egypt and Jordan, before going to our biggest friend, the US, with the goal of making this circle strong, and expanding it," the prime minister said. "I am pleased that I can go to Washington after we had this triangle of talks - between Israel, Egypt and Jordan - and I think it will help us in the future." Israel and Jordan had "many common interests" that were discussed, Netanyahu said. "We also spoke of ways to expand the circle of peace, with the Palestinians and with the other Arab countries." The peace with both Jordan and Egypt was as "strong and stable" as ever, and "not only because of our interest in peace, which is as great as ever," but also because for the first time "in the history of Israel and even in the history of Zionism, there is a wide agreement between the regimes and governments regarding the strategic threat that threatens us all," he said. Although he did not mention it by name, it was clear that Netanyahu was referring to Iran. This confluence of interests stemming from a common concern about Iran "is a challenge, but also presents us an opportunity for cooperation which we have never known before," he said. The tone coming from Amman, however, was decidedly different. The Royal Palace, which clearly wanted to give the meeting as low a profile as possible, issued a statement saying Abdullah stressed that a two-state solution and Israel's withdrawal from "all occupied Palestinian lands" was a precondition to peace in the region. The statement said that Abdullah had called for ending settlement activities, lifting the Gaza "embargo," and ending excavations and "other unilateral steps in Jerusalem that threaten the holy places [and] aim at changing its identity and emptying the city of its Arab Muslim and Christian inhabitants." "Missing the current opportunity to end the conflict" would threaten the security and stability of the whole region, and Israel would "not enjoy security and stability unless the Palestinians gain the right to establish their state and live in peace and security," Abdullah warned, according to the statement. He also dismissed Netanyahu's idea of an "economic peace." "Any notion of economic empowerment, outside a political solution leading to an independent and viable Palestinian state living in peace beside Israel, was rejected since it would not bring peace and would leave the region hostage to further crises and conflicts," he said. Abdullah made no mention of Iran in the statement, though Jordanian concern about a nuclear Iran, as well as the concern of other "moderate" Arab countries regarding Teheran's nuclear development, is believed to be behind the Obama administration's sense that - given the right set of circumstances - those countries could be mobilized to take an active role in isolating Iran. This is particularly important regarding the effectiveness of economic sanctions, since the Persian Gulf states, particularly the United Arab Emirates, do an enormous amount of business with Iran, providing Teheran with important economic oxygen in a time of sanctions and isolation. Iran is expected to be the first and major issue on the agenda of the Obama-Netanyahu talks - more so than the Palestinian issue - with the two men expected to discuss the range of options available to get Teheran to back down. Obama is expected to give Netanyahu some "clarity" regarding his policy of engagement toward Iran, including an indication of what kind of timeline he envisions for talks. In recent days, there have been a number of reports that the Obama administration would give the "engagement" until early October, before deciding on a next step. The Iranian elections are scheduled for June 12, and an early October deadline would give Washington time to evaluate the new Iranian government's intentions. Neither Israeli nor American officials would discuss reports that CIA chief Leon Panetta held secret talks in Israel two weeks ago seeking assurances that Israel would not "surprise" the US with an attack on Iran. In response to the reports, a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office would only say that "it is clear that ever since the Obama government took office, we are closely sharing information, analyses and our thinking about Iran." Netanyahu, meanwhile, is scheduled to leave for the US just after midnight on Saturday night. He will return on Wednesday. His two top aides - Uzi Arad, head of the National Security Council, and Ron Dermer, the head of policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office - were in Washington earlier this week holding preparatory talks with administration officials about the meeting. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, meanwhile, said Thursday night that the conditions were ripe for regional peace, Army Radio reported, and that Israel should seek to advance peace talks not only with the Palestinians, but also with Syria and Lebanon.