Sat, Mar 20, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Jordan's King Abdullah visits Sharon on ranch


Jordan's King Abdullah paid a surprise visit to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ranch to discuss Israel's West Bank barrier and plans to disengage from the Palestinians, a senior political source said yesterday.

The Jordanian monarch flew into Israel by helicopter on Thursday and spent several hours in talks with Sharon before returning home.

It was Sharon's first meeting with an Arab leader since a Middle East summit in Aqaba, Jordan last June that adopted a US-backed peace "road map" charting mutual Israeli-Palestinian steps towards creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

"The visit was meant to allay King Abdullah's fears that construction of the [West Bank] fence will prompt a flight of Palestinians over the border into Jordan," the source said about the controversial barrier now under World Court scrutiny.

Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, is home to a large number of Palestinians displaced in the 1948 and 1967 Israeli-Arab wars.

Israel says the barrier has stopped Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching its cities. Palestinians say the barrier, which at points dips deep into the West Bank, is a land grab separating them from their farms, schools and medical services.

At the meeting over lunch at Sharon's sprawling Sycamore ranch in southern Israel, the two leaders also discussed the prime minister's plan to "separate" unilaterally from the Palestinians if the road map fails, the source said.

Under the evolving plan, Israel would evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip but the Palestinians fear it would then cement the Jewish state's hold over wide areas of the West Bank and deny them enough land for a viable state.

King Abdullah's visit appeared to be another sign that Sharon is about to finalize the go-it-alone measures and present them to US President George W. Bush during a widely expected visit to Washington late this month or in April.

US political and financial support for Sharon's plan could help him sell a Gaza settlement evacuation to rebellious members of his ruling coalition or persuade the main opposition Labour Party to form a unity government with him if they bolt.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie urged Sharon on Thursday to go ahead with a Gaza withdrawal but to leave the area without further death and destruction.

Some 7,500 Jews live in heavily guarded settlements in the Gaza Strip, which has a Palestinian population of more than 1.3 million. There are more than 200,000 settlers in the West Bank, home to more than 2 million Palestinians.

Israel launched an offensive on Tuesday to smash Gaza militants, killing seven Palestinians in helicopter strikes and bulldozing houses in what it said was a search for arms-smuggling tunnels following a double suicide attack on a strategic port.

Both sides want to bloody one another as much as possible to each claim victory if Sharon orders a pullout that would likely give Palestinians most of Gaza, but deprive them of swathes of West Bank land they also want for a state.

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