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With condolence visit to Israel, King Hussein spurs talks

condolances March 16, 1997
Web posted at: 8:34 p.m. EST (0134 GMT)

From Correspondent Jerrold Kessel

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel (CNN) -- It was a courageous gesture, but it wasn't enough to win concessions from Israel on a hotly disputed settlement in East Jerusalem.

King Hussein of Jordan knelt in mourning Sunday with the families of seven Israeli schoolgirls gunned down last week by a Jordanian solider, saying they were all "members of one family."

The shootings along the northern Israel-Jordan border were "a crime that is a shame for all of us," Hussein told grieving parents. "I feel as if I have lost a child of my own. If there is any purpose in life it will be to make sure that all the children no longer suffer the way our generation did."


Many Israelis were touched by Hussein's condolence call, including Yehezkel Cohen, whose 13-year-old daughter Nirit was killed in last Thursday's shootings. "I really love him. Despite the sorrow, I say this: I hope and believe in King Hussein and a real peace."

Low ebb in peace talks

The king's visit occurred as relations between Jordan and Israel reached a low ebb with the exchange of harsh rhetoric over Israel's unilateral building plans in East Jerusalem.

In a joint news conference Sunday with Hussein after the visit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warm words for the Jordanian leader.

"I believe we can reach an agreement," Netanyahu said.

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But the Israeli leader refused to budge on his commitment to Har Homa, the 6,500-unit housing project. "I said it will start this week -- it will begin this week," Netanyahu said of construction.

The Israeli decision to continue with the project ignores vigorous warnings by their security police and military chiefs that the move may provoke wide-scale trouble.

Palestinian leaders said that if Israel goes ahead with the project, it could spell the end of the peace process.

Israeli leaders had been charging Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with gearing up for a violent Palestinian reaction, should the bulldozers move in to the Jerusalem hillside. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as a capital.

Earlier Sunday, Israeli Justice Minister Tsahi Henagbi threatened exile for Arafat if that happened. "Anybody who opens the suitcase of weapons may find himself very soon packing a suitcase and wandering back and forth between Tunisia and Baghdad as he did for many years," he said.

Deal on Gaza airport


In an effort to ease the escalating tensions, Hussein and Netanyahu later telephoned Arafat. The calls focused on efforts to set up a meeting between the prime minister and the Palestinian leader, but nothing definite was decided.

"A line of communication has been opened," the prime minister's office said Sunday.

Netanyahu did agree to reopen the Gaza airport, which has been a sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian talks. The airport had been closed due to Israel's insistence on complete control over security over it.

Arafat immediately will be allowed to take off and land from the airport, and discussions on its future will continue.

If nothing else, King Hussein's visit jump started the stalled dialogue between the two countries

Netanyahu seemed to hint at a new approach. "We cannot solve all the problems right now, but we can create a different basis of dialogue between us and the Palestinians."

Added said Uri Savir, former Israeli chief peace negotiator: "The king has influenced the hearts of Israelis and we shall see if he is able to influence the minds of Israel's leaders."


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