An Edgy Peace Partner

King Hussein worries about a steady erosion of hope

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One day last November, King Hussein of Jordan left his palace in Amman and drove 60 miles south to the prison at Swaqa. There he picked up a prisoner and took him to his home in the capital.

The king had pardoned Laith Shbaylat, serving a three-year sentence for slandering the king and his family by condemning the contacts that Jordan has maintained with Israel since 1948. He had, most pointedly, denounced the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994 as an act of treason. Mr. Shbaylat, an Islamic activist, is Jordan's leading dissident.

By this action, the king sent a signal to Israel that the six months of stalemate in the Palestinian peace process was endangering Jordan's security. More important than the delay was the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government was using it to pursue a settlement policy that would make peace impossible.

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Palestinians comprise more than half the population of Jordan. They have been following events in Gaza and the West Bank with growing dissatisfaction. They and other Jordanians question the 1994 treaty all the more for not having received the hoped-for material dividend. Unemployment continues high, and steep rises in consumer prices have led to unrest. Despite good economic indicators, the average Jordanian feels worse off after two years of peace. The king has dealt judiciously with the Islamists. They are in parliament, where they still function as a loyal opposition. How much longer will this balance hold in the face of frustration and violence west of the Jordan River?

The right of return issue

Under the Oslo agreements of 1993, Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, and Jordan are to discuss the return of Palestinians who fled to Jordan in 1967. These are not the refugees of 1948 who, with their progeny, number 3.5 million. They are hundreds of thousands who are categorized as "displaced." Six rounds of talks were held and Israel's Labor government admitted 35,000.

Then, in December, after a break of nine months, the Netanyahu government begged off "for technical reasons." As though to rub it in, the Israeli Cabinet restored large subsidies to encourage new settlers in the 144 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Among other benefits, residents pay lower income taxes while businesses receive grants equal to at least 20 percent of their investment. The cost to Israel's treasury could be hundreds of millions of dollars, at a time when taxes are being raised and $2 billion is being cut from an austerity budget.

Hussein has already signaled his deep disagreement with Mr. Netanyahu's policy through a visit to the Palestinian self-rule zone of Jericho, returning to the West Bank for the first time since Jordan lost it in 1967. Past differences were put aside as Hussein flew the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Jericho in a Jordanian Air Force helicopter. At a joint press conference, he promised Mr. Arafat full support in the peace talks leading to "an independent Palestinian state on Palestinian national soil." In December, the king took his views to the Israeli people in a long, bleak interview on Israeli television. "Extremists have dictated the agenda now," he lamented, "and we have moved away from all hopes."

Jordan was not the only party to the Oslo agreement worrying about the deadlocked peace process. When Netanyahu chose to open an archaeological tunnel under the Muslim quarter of Old Jerusalem, it touched off an explosion of rage among frustrated West Bank Palestinians.

In three days of rioting, a dozen people were killed and many injured. President Clinton called Hussein, Arafat, and Netanyahu to the White House for an emergency meeting. The hope was to get peace back on track by swiftly completing the long overdue withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from most of the city of Hebron. The meeting was barren. Hussein reportedly bemoaned what he called Netanyahu's arrogance of power. Netanyahu's position, staked out in advance, was that Arafat was plotting to deny Israel its right to security.

US denounces settlement policy

Clinton, at the end of his election campaign, stayed out of the line of fire; but later revealed his resentment. He called the Jewish settlements "obstacles to peace," a formula from earlier administrations that Clinton had never used. And he made clear his desire to see all the terms of the Oslo accord fulfilled. The fear is that, after the withdrawal from Hebron, the peace effort will be frozen again while Netanyahu beefs up the settlements. To guard against that, the United States has reportedly demanded of Israel additional withdrawals in rural areas of the West Bank within six weeks.

Meanwhile, Clinton expressed sympathy with Hussein's position. He declared Jordan a non-NATO ally, entitling the kingdom to "priority consideration" for advanced military equipment and technology. The first shipment, $100 million worth, arrived in mid-December. Clearly, the point was to tell Israel that the United States also has a national interest in the security and stability of Jordan.

This small country has no oil but it has a strategic location, between Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel in the center of the Arabian peninsula, that makes its preservation and the influence of its king enormously important for the attainment of peace.

Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS News, currently writes on world affairs.

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