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Hussein, Arafat Consider Jordan-West Bank Confederation

By Caryle Murphy
The Washington Post

Cairo, Egypt

King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat are considering declaring a confederation between Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank as a way to give impetus to the stalled Middle East peace talks, according to Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian sources.

Hussein discussed the idea with Secretary of State James A. Baker III during his visit to Washington last week, a senior administration official told Washington Post staff writer David Hoffman. The U.S. official said Hussein did not refer to a discussion with Arafat, but simply said the idea of a confederation with Palestinians was being considered.

The Jordanian king told Baker that a confederation might make it easier for the Palestinians to negotiate toward interim arrangements for autonomy, according to the official. But, the official added, Hussein did not provide details.

The U.S. official said the Bush administration's response was that the decision about a confederation was not up to the United States, but that Washington would welcome any effort to spur the negotiations toward interim arrangements. Recently the administration has been critical of the Palestinians for not focusing enough on near-term autonomy measures.

Arafat reportedly gave his assent to the proposal, conditional on final approval by the PLO's Central Council, shortly before Hussein traveled to Washington last week.

When the PLO declared a Palestinian state in 1988 on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, it also agreed to form a confederation with Jordan after that Palestinian state achieved independence. The latest proposal would reverse that, declaring the confederation a reality even before a Palestinian state exists.

Some Arab sources portrayed the confederation proposal as a tactical maneuver to overcome Israeli arguments in the Washington talks that Israel is not an occupying force because the West Bank is not being claimed by a sovereign country. Jordan administered the West Bank from 1950 until 1988, when Hussein cut legal ties with the territory to signal the Palestinians that he had no designs on their land.

Others saw the new move as a way for Arafat, who has been forced to take a back seat to the West Bank Palestinians actually taking part in the talks, to reassert his authority in the negotiations.

Palestinian sources in Jerusalem said some Palestinian leaders in the Israeli-occupied territories were surprised to hear of the contacts between Arafat and Hussein, and were disturbed by what they saw as an initiative that could undercut their efforts to establish the Palestinians as an independent, sovereign party separate from Jordan.

In a press conference Monday in East Jerusalem, a member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, Saeb Erakat, called the proposal for a confederation "premature." He pointed out that the peace talks presently are aimed at an interim agreement for Palestinian self-rule, and that an initiative for a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation could be discussed only in "final-status" negotiations, which are not due to begin until three years after the interim period begins.

The idea for a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation is significant in part because it is likely to revive a long-standing argument made in Israel, chiefly by members of the Labor Party, that there is a "Jordanian option" for resolving the Palestinian dispute. Labor's Yitzhak Rabin is challenging Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in elections scheduled for June.

A Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, some Arab officials argue, would strengthen Jordan's negotiating hand in the peace talks by giving its Hashemite kingdom a greater voice in West Bank issues, particularly the Arabs' demand that Israel stop building Jewish settlements there.