Stable and progressive - but still feeling vulnerable to Israel

Jordanian businessmen are more than willing to discuss the success of Jordan's development plans. They boast of a rising standard of living, full employment, and the expanding Jordanian economy.

But when the talk turns to Jordan's vulnerability, businessmen here become visibly uncomfortable. They talk immediately of Israel - of the Israeli bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Baghdad, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the siege of Beirut, the settlement of the West Bank.

In the Middle East, where political stability seems a precious commodity, Jordan has been graciously endowed for the past 10 years. And the country - said to have one of the best-managed economies in the developing world - has cashed in handsomely. The literacy rate has risen to more than 70 percent, real economic growth has averaged a healthy 7 to 8 percent annually, and Jordan's current development plan anticipates an ambitious $10 billion in private and public investment between 1981 and 1985.

But beneath the optimism and the visible pride in accomplishment lies a concern among businessmen that the scenes of war they watched on television last summer from Lebanon may eventually come to Jordan.

''The big fear is across the border,'' says an Amman banker, referring to Israel. ''You just don't know what these guys are going to do next. Some people say we know it is inevitable. They went into Lebanon, they annexed the Golan, they are building up the West Bank. It's only a matter of time before they come across the river (Jordan).''

''We have been living in this state of affairs for 35 years now, always aware that Israel is getting stronger and stronger,'' says Dr. Maher G. Shukri, managing director of the Amman-based Finance and Credit Corporation.

''The Lebanese experience showed that the Israelis can do whatever they want with or without the approval of the United States.'' He adds, ''This is a source of concern for all Arabs.''

Such statements, expressed by a range of Jordanian businessmen, economists, bankers, and officials in interviews with the Monitor, offer an insight into Jordanian perceptions of their own vulnerability. And they offer a glimpse of an unseen and perhaps immeasurable hindrance to Jordanian economic development in an otherwise stable and increasingly prosperous Jordan.

In part, as a result of this perceived threat from Israel and to a great extent from Syria as well, the Jordanians have privately indicated to the Reagan administration their desire to purchase US mobile Hawk antiaircraft missiles and F-5G or F-16 jet fighters.

There has been no formal request. But the preliminary discussions alone sparked a public campaign in Washington against the arms sale. As a result, 54 US senators have already signed a resolution opposed to any American arms sales to Jordan on the grounds that such weapons would pose a threat to the security of Israel.

The Jordanians don't see it that way.

To them the Israeli position is clear. It was Israel, not Jordan, the Jordanians stress, which immediately rejected President Reagan's Middle East peace initiative after it was proposed Sept. 1.

Though Jordanian security concerns are primarily with Israel, the Jordanians are also not on particularly good terms with the Syrians. In 1980 Syria and Jordan nearly went to war over 800 tanks Syria had positioned, with air support and missiles, just across Jordan's northern border. Saudi diplomacy prevailed before any fighting broke out.

''We are between two powers: Israel, supplied by America, and Syria, supplied by the Soviets - and we are squeezed in between them,'' says Fahed Fanek, vice-president at Alia Airlines and a columnist for Al-Rai daily newspaper.

Specifically, the Jordanians are worried that the Israelis will eventually annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in so doing spark a new tide of Palestinian refugees into Jordan, which would result in significant economic and political strains on the east bank. They are also concerned about possible Israeli interference in Jordanian affairs, potential Israeli raids on Jordan, and a possible all-out Israeli invasion of Jordan.

According to a 1983 report by the Washington-based Middle East Institute: ''Jordan is . . . critically dependent on one power plant, one refinery, one central urban water facility, and one tunnel to feed water to its Jordan Valley farms. Four successful Israeli air raids would cripple its economy.''

Experts say it would take 3 to 12 minutes for an Israeli fighter-bomber to reach virtually all important military or economic installations in Jordan.

The concern over potential Israeli aggression or Israeli interference in Jordanian affairs has been heightened as a result of repeated statements by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and members of his Cabinet. Mr. Begin is understood by many Jordanians to hold a concept of Eretz Israel (Greater Israel) that includes both the west and east banks of the Jordan River. In addition, the Jordanians have been alarmed by repeated statements by former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and other Israeli government officials that Jordan is a Palestinian state. The Jordanians interpret such statements as a call for a Palestinian-led coup to dethrone King Hussein and install a Palestinian government in Jordan.

''In the past Jordan and Israel had a meeting of minds that Jordan was a responsible and stable country that was going to prevent trouble in the region and therefore it was in Israel's interest to preserve the status quo,'' says a Western diplomatic analyst in Amman. ''But now Israel seems interested in promoting the emergence of a radical, unstable east bank regime that they could point at if necessary'' as justification - for security reasons - for the Israeli West Bank settlement policy.

Jordan's King Hussein is said to have met secretly on several occasions with Israeli leaders when the Labor Party was in power in the 1970s. Since the election of Mr. Begin in 1977, there are believed to have been no such contacts.

Jordanian troops, stationed along the 300 mile-long Israeli border, have in the past decade served a dual purpose. They are there to maintain the border against possible Israeli attack. But they are also there to prevent the crossing into Israel of Palestinian guerrillas bent on terrorizing the Israelis. This has been an established policy of the Jordanian government. It is designed in large part to prevent the type of massive Israeli retaliation raids on Jordanian territory that rendered the Jordan Valley - Jordan's most fertile farmland - a depopulated wasteland in the late 1960s.

''Jordan is the pinnacle of rationality, and this is embarrassing to Israel, '' says the Western analyst. ''If they could have a less stable Palestinian state here in Jordan, it would be less embarrassing.''

A growing concern of the Jordanians is that the world - and particularly the United States - will come to accept the Israeli ''Jordan is Palestine'' argument as the easiest available solution to the Palestinian problem. Equally as alarming to Jordanians, analysts say, is the idea that Palestinians themselves might someday accept the Israeli logic. (At present the Palestinians vigorously reject it.)

''I don't think he (Mr. Begin) wants peace,'' said a senior Jordanian official. ''I think he is thriving on this situation of no war, no peace.''

He adds, ''Knowing his aims, I think what he wants is the land.''

According to Jordanian estimates quoted by the Middle East Institute, there were 300 ''land violations'' and 250 ''major air violations'' by Israel of Jordanian territory between June 1980 and September 1982. The report said the estimates did not include routine daily overflights of northern Jordan and the east bank by Israeli planes.

''I don't know the number but there are repeated violations,'' Walid Tash, secretary general of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, told the Monitor.

Mr. Tash asked why congressional leaders in Washington were so willing to consider the Israeli viewpoint on Middle East issues but were rarely willing to - or were unable to - consider the Jordanian viewpoint.

He said, ''If an Arab country would ask for advanced airplanes (from the US), the Israeli argument against the sale is that this airplane, if it leaves Amman, reaches Tel Aviv in four minutes. But I don't know how they can say this naive thing, because the same airplane from Tel Aviv to Amman would take also four minutes.''

He adds, ''But this is used as Israel's defense in Congress.''

It is difficult to assess the impact of the Jordanian-Israeli tension on economic development and investment. Financial analysts say that while the potential for conflict may deter foreign businessmen from investing in Jordan, Jordanian businessmen have become used to the steady state of tension. Indeed, while Central Bank statistics show a slight decrease in commercial-bank deposits corresponding to the period of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon last summer, there appears to have been no significant decrease in the level of investment at that time or subsequently.

Nonetheless, when fighting broke out in Lebanon, the overall index of the Amman Financial Market, or stock market, plunged by one-third, from a four-month plateau at 300 to close to 200.

''The political situation is a major factor in the development of the economy of this country and to this market,'' says Hashem al-Sabbagh, director general of the stock market. ''We are highly affected by the Iraqi war. We are highly affected by the Lebanese war. We are highly affected by the process of peace in the area.''

But he adds: ''We have been facing crises all the time - monetary crises, political crises, and economic crises - and all the time we come out standing on our feet. It is because we have the willingness to survive.''

Says Dr. Shukri, ''This is really a cause for concern but this concern should inspire us to work harder - or at least to reach a point where we can defend ourselves.''

He adds, ''It is easy to talk about Israeli planes bombing all vital areas of Jordan, but we have to coexist.''

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