Jordanians Fashion Cabinet to Talk Peace And Combat Islamists

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IN a swift move, Jordan's King Hussein has ended an uneasy alliance with conservative Islamists, paved the way for quicker political liberalization, and improved prospects for participation in any future Middle Eastern peace talks. The King's objectives were realized this week by his designation of a new prime minister, Taher Masri, who has formed a broad coalition Cabinet including all political trends - with the exception of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood.

Analysts here say Mr. Masri's Palestinian origins, good standing with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and support from nationalist and leftist groups increase prospects for forming a joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team - a cornerstone of United States efforts to promote Arab-Israeli peace talks. (The US and Israel refuse to talk to the PLO directly.)

According to well-informed sources King Hussein strongly doubts that Israel is willing to give up any of the territory it occupied in 1967. By showing his willingness to form a joint team, he hopes to prevent Israel from rejecting a peace conference over the issue of Palestinian representation.

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The Muslim Brotherhood, which forms one-third of Jordan's 80-member parliament, has said it will not join a government "that was going to negotiate with Israel."

But analysts are skeptical of the Brotherhood's claims that it can succeed in inciting public opinion against the government over this issue. Many say the group's uncompromising position on peace talks was already discredited by its participation in the former Cabinet - which was just as committed to a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The new Cabinet is expected to bring about closer coordination between Jordan and the PLO, since the latter was very wary of the Brotherhood's increasing influence .

Moreover, the Masri appointment has secured broad support for Hussein's negotiating position from the major political tendencies, including leftists and independent Islamists. Hussein's traditional power base - the influential tribes - are also represented in the Cabinet.

But perhaps the most crucial element was Masri's success in securing the backing and the participation of the Jordanian Arab National Democratic Alliance (JANDA) - the largest coalition of predominantly secular independent, leftist, and nationalist groups and activists.

Masri has cultivated close relations with all of these trends since his election to parliament in 1989. Now, political observers say, he is providing a chance for JANDA to counter the Muslim Brotherhood's influence as well as maintain public support for a flexible Jordanian negotiating position.

JANDA, which includes some well-known Jordanian and Palestinian supporters of the PLO, agreed to join the Cabinet after Masri reiterated previous commitments not to bypass the PLO in peace talks and promised to lift martial law and other restrictions.

In many ways, the formation of the coalition government is a reversal of palace policies dating from the 1950s, when Hussein struck a reluctant alliance with the Brotherhood to counter an upsurge of radical pan-Arab and Marxist opposition.

Though the king has long been disenchanted with the Brotherhood, two factors prompted him to act this week, analysts say:

*-First, the Brotherhood's drive for changes in the educational system, to impose the segregation of sexes at schools and work, and censor television and media activities.

*-Second, according to a former Jordanian minister, Hussein was alarmed by recent events in Algeria, where a fundamentalist showdown with the government led to the imposition of emergency rule and the postponement of national elections.

"The King felt that he has to draw the line before the move toward democratization and pluralism," the minister said.

Last week, Jordan ratified a national charter in which all political trends, including the Brotherhood, pledged allegiance to the monarchy and a pluralistic system.

"The King is sending them a clear signal that pluralism is irreversible and that any attempt to sabotage or impede the process will not be tolerated," the former minister said.

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