Peace Talks Put Jordan's King on Tightrope

Hussein takes reluctant lead on Palestinian participation

THE United States-led peace process is catapulting King Hussein to a prominent role on the question of Palestinian representation.His endorsement of the peace talks, planned for next month, has improved his standing with US officials - after his opposition to US intervention in the Gulf angered Americans - but it has also complicated his position at home where strong skepticism about the peace process runs deep. The king's position in the peace process is crucial because he is the only non-Palestinian leader who can claim to represent the West Bank, because roughly half his country is of Palestinian origin, and because the US is insisting that Palestinians come to the conference as a part of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Analysts here believe, and newspaper polls corroborate, that while Jordanians support King Hussein's acceptance of the peace conference, they also doubt that it will lead to an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories. So the king is pursuing a balancing act, something he has almost perfected over the years, in trying to ease fears in his country that the peace process will lead to Arab capitulation, and in trying to meet US demands that he promote the peace conference. "I believe that His Majesty is riding the tide. He cannot let go of it and at the same time he has to live with it," says political scientist and author Kamel Abu Jaber. "Until the Israelis get down to the nitty gritty of what they really want, it will be terribly unwise for His Majesty to alienate either the US or public opinion," says Dr. Abu Jaber, who is also an outspoken political commentator here.

Wary of betrayal Many Jordanians are wary about any involvement in the process that could jeopardize the future of their country if the talks were to end without a solution to the Palestinian problem. Jordanians, says a former Cabinet-level official, do not want their country to be stained with the betrayal of Palestinian rights if the Israelis refuse to make a major territorial concession at the peace conference. "You will not find one Jordanian who will support Jordanian involvement in negotiating the Palestinian problem. King Hussein has no mandate - not ... from the Palestinians [nor] from the Jordanians - to negotiate Palestinian rights," says the former official. Roughly half of Jordan's 3.4 million people are of Palestinian origin - according to a census taken before the recent mass influx of Palestinian expatriates from Kuwait. (See story below.) King Hussein has repeatedly said he will not speak on behalf of the Palestinians and that Jordan will not negotiate with Israel over Palestinian rights. He has been waiting for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which neither Washington nor Tel Aviv recognizes, to approve the formation of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Last July the Jordanian parliament issued a nonbinding statement attacking the US-led peace process, a move that reflected the political feeling in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood, the single biggest bloc in the parliament, has bluntly denounced Jordan's participation in the peace conference. Ministers representing the major leftist groups, with sizable Jordanian and Palestinian power bases, say they will resign if the government goes into negotiations without the PLO or at least its approval. There are no signs, however, that King Hussein's flexibility is causing a decline in the immense popularity he has gained during almost three years of democratization and during the Gulf war. His opposition to the US was widely seen here as courageous.

Urgent need But the king, who has himself warned many times that in the absence of a solution to the Palestinian problem there will be a downhill slide for everybody in the region, cannot afford to stand still, says a top-level Jordanian official. There are fears that the current stalemate will eventually boost the Israeli hard-liners who want to transform Jordan into a substitute homeland for the Palestinians. Furthermore, Jordan, which has limited natural resources, is hoping that a peaceful settlement will bring about an agreement for fair distribution of water resources from the Jordan River, which it shares with Israel. Jordanian officials doubt that Israel will accept a compromise during the peace process, but they say that Jordan, which has incurred the wrath of the US for condemning the war against Iraq, will have to maintain a flexible position to ease the isolation of the country and show that the Israeli side is the one rejecting peace. The US Congress and the oil-rich Gulf states, once Jordan's main financial benefactors, stopped their aid in response to Jordan's refusal to join the international alliance against Iraq, but the US Administration has been pressing Congress to review its decision in light of Jordan's cooperation in the peace process. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, except for Oman, refuse even to normalize relations with King Hussein, while efforts to mend fences with Egypt floundered recently. Last month Amman issued a white paper on the Gulf crisis accusing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak of undermining efforts to find a peaceful Arab solution to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The renewal of tension with Cairo, which was accompanied by press criticism, in addition to the long-standing differences between the PLO, on the one hand, and Syria and Egypt on the other, have so far impeded efforts to convene a meeting to coordinate the negotiating positions of the four major Arab parties involved in the peace process. Recent top-level Palestinian contacts with Egypt and Syria might overcome some of the obstacles to inter-Arab reconciliation. Both Jordan and the PLO fear that a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation will be undermined and isolated at the peace conference without prior coordination with Egypt and Syria. Jordan has been seeking US guarantees that a peace conference will lead to the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in 1967.

Arafat connection Last week PLO chairman Yasser Arafat joined hands with King Hussein in an effort to step up pressure to secure US guarantees before taking further steps toward the formation of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Even though King Hussein has repeatedly urged all parties not to be stopped by taboos and procedural issues, Jordan seems more than willing to accept the PLO request for a joint negotiating strategy position prior to the formation of a joint delegation. In the words of Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdullah Ensour, who stresses that Jordan is not trying to pressure the PLO: "Since the issue concerns a joint delegation a common ground will be needed."

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