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Jordan presses U.S. to take on Israel-Palestinian conflict next

AMMAN, Jordan—Jordanian officials said Thursday that they expect the United States to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once a war with Iraq is over, saying the best solution is a two-state system based on the 1967 borders.

This issue, they said, poses the greatest threat to security in the Arab region.

If there is a war with Iraq, "it would be catastrophic to have two wounds open at the same time," said Marwan Muasher, Jordan's foreign minister. "We plan to be extremely aggressive on this point."

Jordan, which has borders with Israel and Iraq, is the Arab country most directly affected by the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The majority of the nation's population is Palestinian, many of whom feel that Jordan is abandoning their cause by working more closely with the United States, Israel's closest ally. Politically, analysts say, it is important for Jordan to show Palestinians that it has not forgotten their needs.

Economically, Jordan also feels the effects of the uprising in Israel and the West Bank.

Since the violence began 30 months ago, Jordan's trade and tourism industries have dropped sharply.

Jordan is worried it will be caught between a U.S. war in Iraq and a new wave of violence in Israel and the West Bank, analysts say.

"It is wrong that the Arab states don't raise the issues because this is the crux of the problem in the Middle East," said Taher Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister. "It is logical that we are talking about it because we are squeezed between the crises."

Although Jordan has said no attacks on Iraq can be launched from within its border, it has worked closely with the United States, which has loaned Jordan three Patriot missile batteries and six F-16 squadrons that Jordan says are critical to protect its airspace during a possible war. There are at least 2,000 U.S. special forces soldiers in Jordan who are either training the Jordanian military on the equipment or will help defend its airspace in the event of war, government officials said.

"I don't think the United States has a better friend in the region than Jordan," Muasher said.

Jordanian officials said there is no agreement to exchange U.S. attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Jordan's support during any war with Iraq.

After the first Gulf War, the United States organized the Madrid peace conference, in part to address the needs of Arab states that had supported the United States.

Many states said then that their people would not allow them to support war unless the Israeli-Palestinian issue was addressed. While the conference was hailed immediately afterward, it has had little effect on the region since.

Last week, President Bush told the American Enterprise Institute that Israel "will be expected to support the creation of a viable Palestinian state and to work as quickly as possible toward a final status agreement" in any post-war period. "And the Arab states will be expected to meet their responsibilities to oppose terrorism, to support the emergence of a peaceful and democratic Palestine and state clearly they will live in peace with Israel," Bush said.

Besides help with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Jordan says it is depending on U.S. aid to sustain its expected $1.5 billion in economic loses if there is war.

But Muasher says for his country, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to its west will be its top priority.

"This is more important," he said. "Economic aid only solves the short-term problem."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.