- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

President Clinton yesterday promised Jordan's King Abdullah U.S. backing for an international fund to resettle Palestinian refugees, a first step toward resolving one of the most intractable obstacles to Middle East peace.

"There has to be a provision made for dealing with the refugee problems, including some sort of fund, international fund, which would deal with the financial burdens of the displaced refugees everywhere, including Jordan," Mr. Clinton told reporters after a White House meeting with the king.

Though no figures were mentioned, analysts say the amount needed to resettle or compensate displaced Palestinians could run into the billions, with much of it shouldered by the United States.

It would come on top of up to $100 billion estimated to have been spent to implement the 1979 Camp David Peace Accord and another $15 billion to $45 billion price tag placed on any Israeli return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

King Abdullah also met congressional leaders yesterday to discuss funding to resolve claims of the estimated 1.4 million Palestinian refugees who have lived in his nation for four decades.

White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said Mr. Clinton did not tell the king how large a refugee resettlement and compensation fund would be, or what the U.S. share might be.

The fate of Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon is one of the final issues to be settled in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, along with the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the borders of a Palestinian state.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced yesterday in Jerusalem that those peace talks would move back to a still undisclosed location in the Washington area next week.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat will meet Mr. Clinton at the White House on June 14, she added.

But in a sign of the difficulties facing negotiators, each side accused the other of blocking progress on key issues, and Israel said there was no certainty the talks would lead to a three-way summit to seal a deal.

King Abdullah's visit to Washington, where he spent several hours meeting congressional leaders in charge of budgets, trade and aid, also aimed at freeing Jordan from the giant economic shadow cast by Iraq, which imports vastly more from Jordan than does the United States.

Palestinians who fled the creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent wars of 1967 and 1973, and their descendants, comprise about 40 percent of the population of Jordan, according to King Abdullah's spokesman, Bassam Asfour.

Another 300,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, which refuses to allow them permanent residency or citizenship, demanding that they be expelled to either Israel, a future Palestinian state or a third country.

Lebanese leaders say permanent residency for the Palestinians would upset the delicate balance of Shi'ite and Suni Muslims, Druze and Christians, which erupted into a vicious civil war in the 1970s.

Hundreds of thousands more Palestinian refugees live in Syria, the Gulf and other countries.

"Jordan would welcome an international fund," Mr. Asfour said yesterday, although he said it would help to know how much money would be made available and "who would get what."

"And the fund by itself is not enough people must have the right of return and compensation.

"The amount of compensation depends on what they return to. And the states which hosted the refugees have a right to compensation."

While no Arab leader can publicly give up on the right of Palestinians to return to land now part of Israel, that "right of return can be waived" if adequate compensation is offered, said an Arab source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Aside from compensation for refugees, King Abdullah also hopes during a two-day trip to Washington to seek increased trade with the United States.

Col. Crowley said the United States and Jordan agreed to begin negotiations on a free-trade agreement.

According to David Schenker of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, Jordan wants to increase trade with Europe and America to end the dominance of Baghdad. Jordan has $250 million worth of trade with Iraq per year, compared with $14 million with the United States.

Mr. Asfour said that "we have to be sure [of access to] markets in Europe and the United States and we must have the right products" before abandoning Jordan's traditional reliance on Iraq as a trading partner.

The king also discussed the need for trade with the United States on Capitol Hill. He is to meet with more congressional leaders today before returning home to Jordan.

King Abdullah visited earlier with Silicon Valley executives in San Francisco. He is seeking to build a high-technology sector in his economy.

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