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Palestine Rock Rolls Back on Jordan

By Joyce R. Starr and Ralph J. KatroshJoyce R. Starr is director of economic and social development studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ralph J. Katrosh, a consultant on international business issues, is a retired US Department of State official. / January 9, 1989



JORDAN is in trouble. King Hussein is concerned and bitter. He, like Sisyphus, has for years rolled Middle East stones up the hill for the Palestinians, Arabs, Israelis, Americans, and Europeans, only to see them roll back down upon him. Hussein was prodded in his Palestinian policies and peace negotiation efforts by Israel and the United States, as well as the moderate Arab states, the European Community, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the UN Security Council. All of these backers, however, undermined Hussein's position through their lack of imagination, vision, and political courage.

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The Israeli election on Nov. 1 signaled to Jordan that the next government in Jerusalem will be no more likely to accept a viable Palestinian entity on the West Bank and Gaza than were its predecessors. With new Israeli settlements scheduled in these territories, Hussein sees the share of the land left to resident Palestinians shrinking to less than 50 percent, leaving little room for even a confederated entity.

Where might displaced Palestinians go? The idea of Jordan becoming the Palestine state has entered the minds of certain Israeli conservative politicians and rabbis, at least a few members of the PLO, and some Jordanians of Palestine origin. In the Israeli political lexicon, this is called ``transfer.'' King Hussein fears that diplomatic and political developments may leave Palestinians with a state located on the East Bank of the Jordan as their only option. Hussein understands what ``transfer'' would mean for Jordan, and he believes that if he is to survive he must ensure the demographic balance between legitimate East Bankers and Palestinians on the West Bank of the river.

The uprising in the West Bank and Gaza signaled to Hussein that events had passed him by and, indeed, are a repudiation of his leadership. The PLO's answer to the uprising is the declaration of a ``Palestinian state'' on ``our Palestinian territory.'' According to international law and customs, a state is a legal concept existing on a territory within defined boundaries, organized under common political institutions, and having an effective government. Palestinians cannot yet lay claim to a territory within defined boundaries because they occupy land in the East Bank under Jordanian sovereignty and on the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty. Palestinians must, therefore, define boundaries through negotiations; there is no other civilized choice.

The pity of it all is that neither Israel nor others could bring themselves to accept the uprising before the PLO gained control of its direction. If Israel, the moderate Arabs, and the US had dealt with West Bankers and Gazans without calling into question their birthright, a settlement acceptable to Israel and the other concerned parties might have been possible. As for the Arabs, other than Jordan, what have they ever done for Palestinians that is of political significance? For Hussein, better to recognize an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza rather than risk ``transfer'' to the East Bank.

Hussein's disengagement from the West Bank in July has brought new problems to the politics and economy of Jordan. Elections for a parliament to replace the one dissolved are unlikely in the near term. Advocates for a more active Palestinian role in Jordanian affairs are pushing Hussein to curb their nationalism through increased government controls, particularly over the press. The sacking of the founder and chairman of the newspaper Al Dustour was such an attempt to control political discussions. There also are attempts to build a personality cult around the royal family, a tactic likely to be rejected by the free-wheeling, well-educated people on the East Bank. Capital flight is becoming serious and a growing number of West Bankers are withdrawing their savings and remittances from Amman's financial institutions.

Recognizing that his government has been spending beyond its means, Hussein has insisted on an austerity program to curb nonessential spending, particularly luxury imports. But the economic crisis is a reminder that Jordanian prosperity owes much to Palestinian energy, education, and talent. While moderate Arab states will continue to lend Jordan funds, this will not reduce the pressure from the Palestinians in Jordan for political change which, in turn, is likely to be exploited by the West Bank Palestinians, the PLO, and Israel.