Free Speech May Be Price Of Jordan's Peace Treaty

Critics say peace with Israel could sell Jordanian claims short

WHEN Prime Minister Ahmed Obeidat of Jordan was summoned to the palace and asked to resign from the king's appointed Senate on Dec. 8, the message was clear to the country's loyalist elite.

Opposition to the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, signed on Oct. 26, is viewed by the palace as an act of disloyalty to the crown.

Mr. Obeidat, a former head of Jordan's security department, was the only Senate member who publicly opposed the peace treaty with Israel and publicly called for the rejection of normalized relations with Israel.

Most of the country's political and social elite had hoped that ending the 46-year state of war with Israel would pave the way for a more open political system.

But now they say that free discussion opposing the treaty will not be tolerated, and that Jordan's five-year democratization process could falter.

In 1989, Jordan embarked on a five-year program that began with lifting of martial law and led to legalization of political parties and general elections.

No more rallies

Since the signing of the treaty with Israel, human rights activists and parliamentarians complain of a gradual curb of freedom of expression. Rallies by the Islamist and leftist opposition have been banned, and the government-controlled media black out dissenting views.

``In a democracy, it is true that the majority prevails. But that does not mean silencing the opinion of the minority,'' says Sen. Layla Sharaf.

The government has repeatedly claimed the vast majority of Jordanians back the treaty with Israel, which was ratified by Jordan's Parliament and Senate.

But interviews with Jordanian politicians suggest that any opposition to the treaty extends beyond the organized Islamist and leftist political parties - who openly reject the agreement.

Many loyalist politicians in Amman share the opposition's misgivings about anticipated close cooperation with Israel and Jordan's custodianship of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

According to the Jordanian-Israeli treaty, Israel recognizes the role of Jordan as the guardian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, which Israel claims should be its eternal capital.

The provision on Jerusalem has sparked a row with the Gaza-based Palestinian Authority - set up to administer Palestinian self-rule, which argues Jordan's custodianship could jeopardize its sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

But the strongest resentment is coming from Jordanian politicians who are not of Palestinian origin. ``It [the provision] is spoiling our relations with the Palestinians,'' says Jamal al-Shaer, a veteran politician who supports the peace treaty with Israel.

Political analysts point out that the brunt of the criticism comes from Jordanians who have long pushed for Jordan's total disengagement from Palestinian issues. They say the criticism reflects concern among some hard-line Jordanians that King Hussein will accept a confederation with the Palestinians that could overshadow their Jordanian identity.

In his Senate speech on Nov. 12, former Prime Minister Obeidat cited the provision over Jerusalem as one of three points of objections against the treaty. Obeidat argued that the inclusion of Jordanian custodianship of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem could be used by Israel to undermine any further Arab claims to Jerusalem.

Dodging the issue

Political analysts say that Taher al-Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister from a prominent Palestinian family, now a deputy in the parliament, also feels uncomfortable with some of the treaty's provisions including the one on Jerusalem.

Mr. Masri tried unsuccessfully to avoid a fall-out with the palace by remaining outside the country during the parliament's discussion of the agreement. His absence, and reports that he was considering an alliance with the Islamists and the left, has placed Masri in the camps of ``the palace's opponents,'' in the eyes of some Jordanian officials close to the palace.

Many Jordanian politicians say in private they are wary that the palace, which is seen to effectively run the government, is alienating its traditional supporters and marginalizing its democratic institutions.

``Is the Senate a rubber stamp for the palace, or is it part of the legistlative system?'' asked a former minister who requested anonymity, following the forced resignation of Obeidat.

Others are more blunt: ``The Senate will be reduced to a joke if its members cannot express their opinions,'' Dr. Shaer says.

Political commentator Fahd al-Fanek disagrees. He says that opposition to Jordan's treaty with Israel, which is ``necessary for the country's survival,'' is synonymous to opposing the king.

``Parliament members are intimidated by this attitude, and the majority are seeking to appease the palace instead of representing the people,'' charges Toujan al-Faisal, the only female and the most outspoken opponent of the government's policies in the parliament.

Ms. Faisal cautions that if, for the sake of accepting the treaty with Israel, the parliament's role is reduced to appeasing the palace rather than representing the people, ``stability of the country that we all seek to consolidate will be jeopardized.''

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