Jordan's King Hussein, silent through the last two weeks of frenetic Middle Eastern diplomacy, today embraced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as "the leader of the march" that is to take a joint Jordanian-Palestinian peace initiative to Washington next week.
Speaking of "my brother President Mubarak," Hussein said, "I feel that our vision is one and the same."
Despite the warm smiles and the carefully orchestrated show of unity between the two leaders in this Red Sea resort on the edge of the Arabian Desert, however, Hussein fell short of a full endorsement of Mubarak's most recent suggestions about how to get the peace process moving.
Moreover, the initiative described at their press conference here and elaborated on afterward by a senior Egyptian official was similar to terms already made public and already largely rejected by the United States and Israel.
Mubarak is promoting the idea of a dialogue or "discussion" between the United States and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation as a first step in the process.
This could then be followed by Israeli talks with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. The results would be endorsed or ratified by negotiations at an international conference.
Today, Mubarak made a careful distinction between the preliminary "discussions" on the one hand, the "negotiations" on the other.
"We are not talking about sitting around the same table between the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation and Israel," he said. "This we would like to come as a product of the discussion."
But U.S. officials and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, responding to Mubarak's first suggestion of this approach last week, ruled it out. They considered such talks a maneuver designed to get the United States talking to the Palestine Liberation Organization, then to put pressure on Israel to do the same. Instead they want direct talks with Jordan and Palestinians not associated with the PLO.
[Reuter] quoted a high Israeli official in Jerusalem as saying Wednesday, "Israel continues to demand direct talks without prior conditions between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation without PLO representatives."
Mustafa Khalil, a former foreign minister who is chairman of the ruling party's foreign affairs committee and a close adviser to Mubarak, seemed to confirm the view that the preliminary talks are a way of legitimizing the Palestinian delegation.
"The most important thing is to have the agreement of the United States on the principle of discussions" with the joint delegation, Khalil told reporters as Hussein and Mubarak sailed the Red Sea after their conference.
A report on Jordanian-Egyptian relations issued by the Egyptian Information Ministry this morning talked of the need to bring about a "minimum of solidarity" among the concerned Arab parties "to force the U.S.A. to exercise pressure on Israel to enter into negotiations."
But Israel's usually divided government is unanimous in its rejection of any proposal to talk directly with the PLO, and since 1975 the United States has promised Israel that it will not recognize the PLO until the PLO recognizes Israel.
In the Egyptian view, Mubarak's initiative attempts to devise a way for the PLO to accept Israel's right to exist, and for Israel to accept the PLO as representative of the Palestinian people, while each pretends it is doing something else.
The joint Palestinian-Jordanian plan, first announced last month, would have the PLO accepting all U.N. resolutions dealing with the issue, without specifically naming the one that recognizes Israel's right to exist in exchange for its withdrawal from territories it occupied in 1967.
Israel and the United States oppose an independent Palestinian state, so a confederation of some sort between Jordan and the Palestinians is contemplated. The plan calls for a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation in which the PLO would have a special but thus far ill-defined role in an Arab delegation to a peace conference.
Mubarak has attempted to stretch the interpretation of these points, but Hussein today seemed reluctant to follow him as far as he wanted to go. Although the king called Mubarak's suggestions for preliminary dialogue "a very vital element for progress," he added, "I believe that it would not be out of place for me to suggest that the major contribution has been made through the [Jordanian-Palestinian] agreement itself."
Hussein said he wanted to make "perfectly clear that Jordan is no substitute nor can it ever be a substitute for the Palestinians and their legitimate representatives in the process leading to the establishment of a just and durable peace."
Hussein suggested that the initiative has gone as far as it can on the Arab side. "We have made our move," he said. Now "it is up to the United States."
"There is a very narrow window for solving this problem," Hussein conceded. "I believe this is the last chance."