Jordan in a Strange New World

As the King moves toward peace with Israel, the disbelieving masses would rather talk soccer

THE long expected, but mostly dreaded words have been finally uttered openly: King Hussein is ready to sign a peace treaty with Israel. In a country where political reaction has always echoed across the borders, there is unusual silence.

In fact, the World Cup soccer games seem to capture more attention than daily official statements seeking support for the escalation of peace talks with Israel. Results of the games provoke more debate than the most controversial political statements.

For a highly politicized population, the lack of debate over Crown Prince Hassan's recent televised announcement that Jordan might host a round of Israeli-Jordanian talks is almost inexplicable.

But underneath the apparent apathy lies layers of accumulated disillusionments that have turned a fiery population numb. Since the end of the Gulf war, Jordanians have watched the changes in their surroundings, angrily in the beginning but helplessly now.

Infuriated Jordanians marched in the streets over the war and the subsequent embargo against neighboring Iraq. They challenged their government's adherence to the international sanctions, only to find that their own southern port of Aqaba has been blockaded continually since the Gulf war. The hills and squares of Amman that once echoed with rebellion against American policies in the region are now swarming with destitute Iraqis selling everything thinkable to survive.

The same streets that exploded with demonstrations every time the Israelis cracked down on the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are now filled with people baffled at watching the once-revered Palestine Liberation Organization fighters cross to the other side to police Palestinians under, as they see it, Israeli terms.

Damascus to the north has lost its appeal as a cradle for nationalism. Rhetoric beaming from Syrian television against Jordan's talks with Israel and the Palestinian autonomy deal has no influence at all.

For most Jordanians, the Syrian revolutionary rhetoric had been used to masquerade Damascus's campaigns against the Palestinians in Lebanon and its participation in the Western coalition against Iraq during the Gulf war. A trip to Syria today is no longer associated with a political mission to connect with the Jordanians and the Palestinian opposition, but is an escape to the richer night life in Damascus and the beautiful beaches there.

Nor is there hope coming from the South. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has snubbed King Hussein's efforts to reconcile, refusing to resume financial aid and terminating Jordanian and Palestinian working contracts.

Thus when Jordanians finally saw King Hussein received with apparent warmth during his recent Washington visit, they understood that Jordan had been finally accepted again. But they also understood that they have been tamed to accept the law of the land.

The mainstream newspapers immediately got the message and started promoting Jordan's ``constructive and realistic line.'' There was one strident exception: A cartoon in the largest daily, al-Rai, depicted all the Arabs walking with bowed heads and chained hands and feet toward the United States.

But again, there is little debate. Instead, Jordanians are turning into a symbolic opposition. Protest is reflected in resentment of the fact that the US is hosting the World Cup. ``The US is determined to prove that it is the center of the universe,'' says a disgruntled young woman smoking an American cigarette. She and her middle class friends meet daily to watch the games, venting their anger by supporting the underdogs - third world teams - while preparing hamburgers or steak for dinner and drinking Coca Colas.

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