Jordanian FM to Haaretz: Deal With Palestinians Before Peace With Syria

There will be no peace in the region unless the Palestinian problem is resolved, Jordan's Foreign Minister Abdelelah Al-Khatib told Haaretz in an interview yesterday in his office in Amman.

"Peace with Syria is no alternative to peace with the Palestinians; the heart of the problem in the region is the Palestinian problem, and without a solution to it there will be no peace in the region," Khatib said.

The foreign minister indicated that concentrating on the Palestinian track was much more important at this stage than peace with Syria despite the significance of an agreement with Damascus.

"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central issue in the region," Khatib said.

But he stressed that the ultimate goal of the Arab states is to bring about a collective peace in which the Syrian-Israeli conflict is also resolved.

Khatib also said the experience in the region shows that the failure of efforts to bring about peace causes a serious deterioration in the situation, and that time is not working in favor of those wishing peace.

"Always when the efforts for peace fail there is a threat that armed clashes will break out," he said.

The Jordanian foreign minister also blamed Israel for the events in Gaza.

"The situation in the Gaza Strip is fragile and complicated, but its origins - which many Israelis also say - lie in the unilateralism and lack of coordination with the Palestinian Authority over the withdrawal."

Khatib made it clear that he objects to further unilateral steps that Israel may be planning.

The minister is due in Jerusalem next Wednesday with his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, as representatives of the Arab League, in an effort to further the Arab Peace Initiative and convince decision-makers in Israel of the need to support the initiative and adopt it as "the way of restoring credibility to the peace process.

"Israel has always said that it was to be accepted in this region and to be part of it. The Arab Peace Initiative grants precisely this," Khatib said.

As part of the Arab League's initiative, the Arab states are willing to offer Israel security guarantees.

"Will Jordan send Jordanian troops to the border between Israel and Palestine?" Khatib was asked. "It is still too early to talk about that, it is a matter for negotiations."

Khatib avoided discussing the other kind of guarantees Arab states might be willing to offer Israel.

Another matter that is up for negotiations is the willingness of countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to hold full diplomatic relations with Israel prior to an end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I cannot speak on behalf of any other country," Khatib said, adding that during the 1990s Arab states encouraged Israel by permitting the opening of representative offices in their territory.

To add emphasis to the importance of the Arab League's initiative, Khatib stressed that the entire Islamic Organization Conference, barring Iran, supported the proposal.

"This is a collective offer ... this will be an important achievement for the region and a historic opportunity for Israel," in which 56 Muslim states will accept Israel.

On the other hand, Jordan's foreign minister was unable to explain why King Abdullah does not consider an official visit to Israel at this juncture an essential tool for rallying Israeli public support for the peace process.

"When the conditions are ripe, the King will also visit Israel," Khatib said, almost quoting verbatim the explanation offered by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for the reason he does not make a visit.

Regarding a normalization with Israel, including the activities of the committee against normalization, the boycott of journalists, and the views of Islamist parliamentarians opposed to the peace treaty between the two countries, Khatib insisted that "so long as there is a conflict, it boosts the opponents of peace."

The foreign minister stressed that "when there is progress in the peace process there will be a drop in these tendencies, and they may disappear entirely."

Regarding the developments in the Gaza Strip and the strength of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Khatib said there is no change in Jordan's attitude toward Hamas, and that Abbas is the sole representative, in the eyes of the Hashemite Kingdom, of "Palestinian legitimacy."

On the Iranian nuclear program, Khatib said that "it is not good for the region to have a nuclear arms race." He also said he expects that with time there will be talk of nuclear disarmament in the region, including Israel's arsenal.

Khatib said the Jordanian nuclear program is geared toward electricity production, and that it will be a completely "transparent" program, according to the criteria established by the International Atomic Energy Agency.