King Abdullah of Jordan said his recent meeting with Hafez Assad has convinced him that the Syrian president is ready to sign a peace agreement with Israel.
"I believe that President Assad is very keen to move in the right direction and have a peace with Israel," he told The Jewish Week on Monday during the final leg of a 10-day visit to the United States. "I am very optimistic with the statements that are coming out of Damascus."
King Abdullah did not elaborate, but his comments echoed those of a European Union envoy who said last week that he found Syria "extremely ready and anxious" to resume talks with Israel. The envoy, Miguel Angel Moratinos, said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara told him that Syria was satisfied with the election of Labor Party leader Ehud Barak as Israel’s prime minister, although Shara needed to be cautious until Barak formed a new government.
At a breakfast meeting with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Abdullah cautioned that Barak must not ignore the Palestinians while he seeks to cement a deal with Syria.
"We have to keep things in perspective," he said, "because if we donít solve the Palestinian issue, we really haven’t solved the problem."
In fact, he later told The New York Times, it would "only create more of a difficulty." The king said he believed Syria now realizes it has "missed the boat on several occasions and now here’s an opportunity to start again. And I don’t think that another opportunity will come up again."
Barak during his successful campaign to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to pick up negotiations with Syria where they had been when Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated in 1995.
For Abdullah, 37, it was his first visit here since he became ruler of Jordan following the death of his father, King Hussein, on Feb. 7. Throughout his trip, which included visits to the White House and Capitol Hill, Abdullah said he planned to follow in his father’s footsteps.
In his comments to the Presidents Conference, Abdullah pledged to "carry on in his light and to achieve the goals he set."
He also conveyed a hopeful message about peace in the Middle East, saying: "I see prosperity and paradise in our part of the region as attainable. Once the Palestinian-Israeli situation is over, the whole region will flourish."
Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994. Abdullah said he did not "feel comfortable with being a middle man" between Israelis and the Palestinians, but promised to be there "to help both sides when they need it to provide reassurance."
Although he acknowledged that the final-status issues that must be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians are "very difficult," Abdullah said Barak’s election has made him more confident.
"Leading into the election, Prime Minister-elect Barak and his people had a close working relationship with President Arafat and his people," he said. "I believe they see eye-to-eye on how to move ahead, and that makes me extremely optimistic."
Barak’s election, he said, was a "landslide victory, which I think really is a tone-setter for the way we want to do business in the Middle East. The people of Israel, our friends in the Palestinian National Authority, as well as Jordanians now have a clear mandate to move ahead: and we need to move ahead quickly."
Abdullah said there’s a sense of euphoria in the Middle East now, replacing months and years of frustration. "[But] if something doesnít happen in the next three or four months," he said, "I fear that the backlash will be even worse than it was a couple of months ago."
The king was educated in Britain and the U.S. and knows many Israelis. In fact, he said, it was "very hard for me in these months having to stay in Jordan and not contact my friends in Israel" for fear of influencing the election. But he noted that Barak visited him two weeks ago.
"We see eye-to eye," Abdullah said.
At another point in his remarks, Abdullah said: "We keep talking of peace for our children and generations to come. We should be saying that we want peace now for us and for generations to come. This is a golden opportunity for everyone to achieve those goals."
During the question-and-answer period, Abdullah said he believed in the "right of return," referring to Palestinians who fled during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Israel is willing to discuss only those Palestinians who fled during the Six-Day War in 1967. Abdullah was also asked about UN Resolution 181, the 1947 partition of Palestine that was rejected at the time by the Arabs and is now being pressed by the Palestinians.
"We have to understand that in the past several months, a lot of people had positions taken that I think were in direct relation to the [Israeli] election process," he said. "I think we need to put the past behind us and say that there is a new government in Israel. There’s a new hope in our part of the world and I think we [should] start with a brand new page.
"I hope that when both sides sit together, they are not going to bring up old stories and confuse the issue. This is their one chance. … I have a lot of faith in both sides."
The U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, told a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington this week that the United States believes that Resolution 181 is no longer relevant. He said peace agreements should be based upon resolutions approved after both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which demanded that Israel return land the Arabs lost in those wars but did not spell out the boundaries.
Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said he found Abdullah’s "general tone very positive," including his response to the issue of Resolution 181.
"He showed that he is maintaining his father’s legacy in wanting to serve as a bridge for peace," he added. "He wants to be a link between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Arab world, particularly Syria."