Jordan, Egypt return ambassadors after four-year absence
Jordanian Ambassador Marouf al-Bakhit, a former general and most recently ambassador to Turkey, arrived in Israel on Sunday, as Egypt named Mohammed Assem, Cairo's current envoy to Sudan, as its new ambassador to Israel.
The moves reflect the warming of ties between Israel and the two neighboring states with which it has diplomatic relations that were chilled by the four-year intifada.
Bakhit arrived Sunday morning on the direct flight from Amman and is slated to meet Monday with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in Jerusalem. He was met at the airport by Shalom Cohen, the head of the Middle East affairs desk in the ministry.
Assem, the incoming Egyptian ambassador, is known to be close to President Hosni Mubarak and helped mend relations with Sudan, after an abortive 1995 attempt to assassinate Mubarak, which Egypt attributed to the other country.
Despite the improving relations, diplomatic sources in Amman on Sunday said that Shalom's planned trip to Amman, which was tentatively scheduled for this week, has been postponed due to a disagreement between the two countries. The minister apparently wanted a high-profile visit, but the Jordanians wanted to make sure Shalom was bringing "clear Israeli commitments" for the transfer of several Jordanian citizens in Israeli prisons, to the Jordanian authorities.
The main bone of contention between the two countries are four prisoners arrested and convicted for their participation in the murder of two Israeli soldiers before the 1994 peace treaty was signed between the two countries. There are other Jordanian prisoners in Israeli hands, as well. Their families have established a lobby that has begun seeking international support for their demand for their relatives to be returned to Jordan.
Amman was infuriated when Israel agreed to free more than 400 prisoners, including non-Palestinian Arabs, in a prisoner exchange deal with the Hezbollah, but refused to hand over the Jordanians. "Israel frees prisoners to the Hezbollah while it kidnaps their soldiers, but is not ready to send prisoners to a country with whom it has a peace agreement," Jordanian government officials were saying a year ago.
Another issue that contributes to the ongoing tension between the two countries is the question of the deployment of the Palestinian "Badr" unit in the West Bank. This unit is part of the Palestinian Liberation Army (the military wing of the PLO) and is attached to armies in various Arab countries. Israel has turned down a Jordanian proposal for the unit to cross into the West Bank to beef up Palestinian Authority security forces.
Bakhit has a doctorate from the University of London's Kings College. He left the Jordanian army in 1999 with the rank of major general and joined the diplomatic corps of his country. In the 1990s, he was the Jordanian representatives to the multilateral talks on disarmament.
The posting to Tel Aviv is considered a high-ranking diplomatic position. Indeed, the first Jordanian ambassador to Israel, Marwan Muasher, is now the deputy prime minister of Jordan.