Abdullah, Sharon hold secret meeting at PM’s Negev ranch

19/03/2004 19.03.2004 King Abdullah of Jordan on Thursday paid a secret visit to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch in the Negev, where the two leaders met over an extended lunch. The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on details of the conversation, but a senior political source said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the king’s concern that Palestinians would flee to Jordan. „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. Jordan also fears that Israeli disengagement from the territories will encourage Palestinians seeking work to come to Jordan instead.

It is likely the two spoke about implications of Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and the chances of implementing the road map peace plan for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, as well as the West Bank separation fence. Last week, at the inauguration of a joint Israeli-Jordanian research center in the Arava, Sharon said he planned to meet with Abdullah within the next few days. Amman denied the announcement at the time. The last time the two met openly was at the Aqaba summit in June 2003. Prior to that, they held at least one secret meeting, on the eve of America’s invasion of Iraq. Thursday’s meeting took place against a of growing tension in Israeli-Jordanian relations that stems from several factors: the Jordanians’ harsh criticism of the separation fence; an argument over the fate of Jordanian security prisoners being held by Israel that was sparked by news of Israel’s prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah; and Jordanian worries over the disengagement plan. Sharon will convene ministers from his Likud Party on Sunday for an initial discussion of the disengagement plan. At the meeting, the prime minister will try to swing a majority of the party’s ministers behind the plan. Prior to the meeting, Sharon sent his bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, to speak individually with the ministers in an effort to soften them up. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is believed to hold the decisive vote among the ministers opposing the plan. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who is also wavering over whether to back the proposal, is currently in the United States. Weisglass will head for Washington early next week in an effort to reach an agreement with the U.S. administration on what it will give to Israel in exchange for withdrawing from Gaza as well as from a few West Bank settlements. While there, Weisglass will also try to finalize the agenda for Sharon’s visit to the American capital, which is planned for March 31, and begin work on a draft of a joint statement by Sharon and U.S. President George W. Bush in which America will offer Israel diplomatic and security guarantees as compensation for the withdrawal. BPI