KING Hussein was expected to postpone today Jordan's first multiparty elections in a move intended to thwart divisions between Jordanians and Palestinians over the peace accord signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The step is one of several that the Jordanian government is taking to preempt negative reactions to the accord on Palestinian autonomy in the Israeli-occupied territories. The most troubling feature of the agreement, to observers here, is the absence of a solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees in Jordan. This country hosts the biggest concentration of Palestinians in the diaspora.
But the expected delay of parliamentary elections, scheduled for Nov. 8, has aroused concerns that the government is undermining the democratic process.
Jordanian officials worry that the country could become a permanent residence for Palestinian refugees, further upsetting the demographic imbalance, deepening resentment Jordanian conservatives feel toward Palestinian political and economic influence, and giving credence to claims by Israeli right-wing politicians that Jordan is a substitute Palestinian homeland.
The government has indicated in the last week that it will ask Jordanians of Palestinian origin to chose between practicing their political rights in the kingdom or in the Gaza Strip and West Bank city of Jericho, which will come under limited Palestinian self-rule according to the peace accord.
They also said that Jordan, which faces an influx of Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and refugee camps in the Arab world, will impose strict limits on the Palestinians entry to the country.
Information Minister Maan Abu-Nouwar said Sunday that Jordan would not accept Palestinian refugees forced out of Syria or Lebanon. (Palestinians in Egypt, right.)
Although King Hussein has said he fully supports the accord, he says he must reserve the right to take all steps ``to protect Jordan's national interests.''
The historic deal between the PLO and Israel has drawn conflicting reactions in Jordan. Jordanians of Palestinian origin, many of whom reside in 11 refugee camps across the country, constitute roughly half of the 3.7 million population.
Unlike the territories, where Palestinians celebrated prospects of the end of the 26-year old Israeli occupation, the reaction in Jordan's refugee camps was muted and confused, because Palestinians were left uncertain about their future.
The accord indicated that refugees displaced in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war could be repatriated, but left out mention of those who fled Palestine when Israel was established in 1948.
``One of the major flaws of the accord is that it left the fate of most Palestinians in the diaspora suspended in the air,'' says a Jordanian analyst who opposes the agreement and worries that Arab countries will use it to crack down on Palestinians.
Jordanian officials have been making contradictory statements about the status and rights of the Palestinians in the country. The official ambivalence suggests that this country's identity crisis is resurfacing: The country is ruled by Jordanians of Hashemite descent, even though more than half of the population is of Palestinian origin.
Some officials have said that Palestinians will lose their citizenship if they take part in the elections for Palestinian autonomy; that poll must take place within nine months, according to the peace agreement.
But King Hussein told Western journalists over the weekened that he was considering allowing dual nationality for Palestinians.
The king told a group of Western reporters on Sunday that while Palestinians will not be allowed to practice political rights in Jordan if they vote in the Palestinian poll, they will not lose their civil rights as citizens if they choose to stay in Jordan.
The vast majority of Palestinians in Jordan hold Jordanian passports and could take part in the political process, including voting and running for government offices.
But the economic and political influence of Palestinians in the country has provoked resentment among conservative Jordanian traditionalists who constitute one of the historical pillars of the Hashemite establishment.
These groups, who have organized themselves in political parties, have publicly called for the postponement of the election.
According to government officials and analysts, the conservatives, mainly from the Al-Ahad Party and the Al-Watan Party, worry that the outcome of the elections will be largely determined by the various candidates' stances on the Jordanian-Palestinian accord - especially among Palestinian constituencies.
But the leftist and Pan-Arab Nationalists Jordanian parties, who stand to gain in some of the these constituencies, have also called for the postponement of the elections to preempt divisions among Jordanian Palestinians.
King Hussein must now find a way to prevent the collapse of Jordan's four-year experiment with democracy, many political analysts and activists say, warning that the delay could deepen differences in the country.