Jordan draws line, arrests anti-Israel activists

Critics see economic, political motivation in the recent apprehensions.

In a move that demonstrates anew how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects the internal politics of Middle Eastern countries, Jordan has come down hard on activists who oppose its peace with Israel.

On Jan. 27, police here arrested seven activists who were publishing "blacklists" of Jordanian individuals, businesses, and officials who have had dealings with Israel.

But even supporters of the action say the government's motives go beyond a desire to protect people and companies from being publicly vilified for supporting the peace treaty that Jordan and Israel signed in 1994.

The government appears wary of the political strength that Jordanian opponents of the peace process are accumulating after four months of open confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The government feels threatened," says Hisham Yanis, a well-known actor and comedian who says his reputation has been destroyed because of the blacklists and other efforts to disparage proponents of what is known here as the "normalization" of ties with Israel.

An "anti-normalization committee" - made up of representatives of Jordan's professional associations - had begun to constitute "another power" that challenged the government, Mr. Yanis says.

Ghazi al-Saadi, a political analyst at the Dar al-Jalil Center for Studies in Amman, sees an additional government motive for the crackdown. "In order to improve the country's economic situation," he says, Jordan needs either a "complete peace" with Israel or a lifting of the UN embargo of neighboring Iraq.

Israel is, of course, the dominant foreign-policy issue for many Arab states, especially those that share borders with the Jewish state. At the same time, how to handle the Palestinian cause is an important internal issue - and no more so than in Jordan.

The majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, so Jordan's regime sometimes finds itself squeezed between the need to back the Palestinian cause and the desire to develop and pursue policies that the government considers to be in Jordan's best interests. In 1970, the late King Hussein had to use military force and ask for Israel's help to put down rebellious Palestinian guerrillas who sought to topple his government.

To varying degrees, the same dynamic affects many Arab countries. After four months of Israeli-Palestinian violence, Arab public opinion in the region is increasingly anti-Israel, and it is risky for any government to take a stand that runs against popular sentiment.

In Egypt - the only Arab country other than Jordan to sign a peace treaty with Israel - a court on Feb. 11 refused to register a nongovernmental Egyptian-Israeli friendship association "in the light of the provocation to Arab sentiments that Israel practices on a daily basis."

Jordan's anti-normalization committee is made up of representatives of the country's professional associations. Membership in such groups - which bring together doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, journalists, and other professionals - is effectively mandatory in order to work in Jordan. In a country where the activities of political parties are less than fully free, the associations are also an outlet for political expression.

The government tolerated the committee's first blacklist, which appeared last year, but not a second one that appeared a few days before the arrests. On it were some prominent names, such that of the chief of Jordan's Royal Court, and the government apparently felt the committee had gone too far.

But the severity of the crackdown seemed to surprise many Jordanians, especially because some of the committee members were charged with capital crimes such as possessing illegal weapons and explosive devices, according to media reports. All the committee members were charged with membership in an "illegal organization," which carries a penalty of "temporary hard labor and ... a minimum of two years in jail," according to a Jordan Bar Association official who declined to be named.

Saleh al-Armouti, the head of the Bar Association and a lawyer for the accused, says the government has no case against the committee members, since their work was an activity of the state-sponsored professional associations. He says the anti-normalization committee set out not to punish anyone for dealing with Israel, but merely to "create awareness" in Jordanian society about such efforts.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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