Palestine puzzle: Can Hussein and PLO live together?
The two men looked like the closest of friends. Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, his checked Arab headdress neatly tucked back over a dark safari suit, warmly embraced Jordan's King Hussein as television cameras whirred.Skip to next paragraph
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This was the fifth such meeting in recent months. The two leaders were talking about a framework for a Palestinian-Jordanian state.
One could almost forget past history: the scenes of PLO commandos being driven out of Amman and Jordan in 1970-71 in bloody clashes with King Hussein's army.
In fact, neither side has forgotten. But the embraces were not simply political hypocrisy. They were evidence of a new political realism in the wake of the PLO's expulsion from Beirut and the current intense American interest in a regional Mideast peace settlement.
Both King Hussein and Yasser Arafat are aware that the last chance for a negotiated solution to the Palestinian problem may be slipping away. Each knows he cannot act without the other. On Feb. 14, the 530-member Palestine National Council, the PLO's de facto parliament, will meet to chart its plans for the future.
The Palestinians may finally be forced to resolve their relationship with Jordan - more complex than with any other Arab nation - which now holds the key to the Palestinian future.
''The Palestinians and Jordanians are so closely meshed in geography and on a personal basis that it is hard to disentangle them,'' says Rami Khouri, the Palestinian-Jordanian editor of the Jordan Times.
Their most overwhelming tie is demographic. Palestinians comprise around 60 percent of the 2.3 million Jordanian citizens on the East Bank of the Jordanian kingdom. This is the largest concentration in any Arab state. It does not include more than 800,000 Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship living on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of Jordan.
These statistics have encouraged some Israeli leaders, notably former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, to insist that Jordan is the Palestinian state. Mr. Sharon has suggested that Palestinians take over the East Bank and oust the King while Israel keeps the occupied West Bank.
The Palestinian-Jordanian reality is far more complex. In 1922 the British severed the desert territory east of the Jordan River, known as Transjordania, from their League of Nations Palestine Mandate (with the legal blessing of the League) to create a kingdom for Hussein's grandfather Emir Abdullah. The area's population of 300,000 was largely nomadic and had no sense of nationhood.
But in 1950, Abdullah annexed the West Bank and east Jerusalem - left in his army's hands after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war - thus adding hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to his rule.
Unlike any other Arab ruler, he gave them citizenship. The Palestinians, better educated and more ambitious than their East Bank counterparts, came to dominate the country's economic and intellectual life, and its civil service, while also holding important government and Cabinet posts. They built Amman into a boom town of 700,000, at least 70 percent Palestinian, and spread like lava across seven hills of sprawling villas and apartment blocks.
But the Palestinians never controlled the levers of power: The monarchy maintained close hold over the army, the police, the intelligence apparatus, and of course the center of power, the royal court. Nor did the Palestinians ever really assimilate into the Jordanian state.