Israel and Jordan Scuffle Over Islamist Groups

Israeli charges anger Jordanians and fail to bring them back to the negotiating table

THE escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians has not stopped the talks in Cairo aimed at implementing the Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization accord. But the confrontations in the occupied territories are seriously jeopardizing the already frozen talks between Jordan and Israel.

Israeli leaders last Thursday accused the Jordanian government of backing Islamist military operations against Israeli citizens. They threatened to act to protect the Jewish state if Jordan did not prove otherwise. Jordanian officials angrily dismissed the Israeli threats.

At an impromptu press conference on Saturday, King Hussein pointed out that the PLO was the only Palestinian group that held legal status in Jordan. He said the militant Islamic Resistance movement, Hamas, which wants to derail the Israeli-PLO peace accord, was illegal in the kingdom.

At the same time, Jordan - which had already suspended peace talks with Israel pending a lifting of a United Nations blockade on its Red Sea port of Aqaba imposed as part of the sanctions against Iraq in 1990 - indicated the Israeli pressure would not bring it back to the negotiating table.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres assailed Jordan last week for allowing Hamas to operate an office in the capital, Amman, and to make statements on television.

Jordanian Parliament speaker and former Prime Minister Taher al-Masri said that Mr. Rabin's accusations were designed to pressure Jordan to sign ``a premature and separate normalization treaty'' with Israel.

The Israeli claims followed statements by an Amman-based leader of Hamas claiming Hamas's responsibility for a suicide bomb attack against Israeli civilians in Hadera last week - the second in retaliation for the Feb. 25 massacre of at least 30 Muslim worshipers in a Hebron mosque by a Jewish settler.

The king's statements were aimed at both defusing what Jordan sees as an Israeli attempt to taint its name with terrorism and at assuring the PLO leadership that it was not backing opposition groups to undermine its legitimacy.

``Any other group is illegal in terms of any other actions it takes, or positions it feels or claims to represent, and I call upon all Jordanians to realize this fact and to adhere to this consistent policy...,'' the king said.

The king's declaration provoked fears here that in its attempt to ease Israeli pressures, the government will take measures that could create Jordanian-Palestinian frictions and curb press, political, and expression freedoms.

In 1986 Jordan was placed under similar, albeit never public, Israeli threats. Jordan reacted then by closing down PLO offices and expelling PLO military leader leader Khalil al-Wazir Abu Jihad from the country. Wazir was later killed on April 16, 1988, by Israeli special units in his Tunis home.

There were no indications this time around, though, of that kind of crackdown. But Hamas and other Palestinian groups were reportedly notified by Jordanian security that they were not allowed to make statements declaring responsibility for or supporting their groups' activities against Israel.

Although Hamas and leftist Palestinian groups do not maintain an official presence in the country, they are tolerated by the government as long they do not interfere in internal issues.

In 1989 Hussein launched a democratization process, leading to legalization of Jordanian political parties and de facto recognition of the Palestinian groups in Jordan.

The relationship between opposition Palestinian groups and Jordan was enhanced in 1990, at the peak of the Gulf crisis, when King Hussein allowed back two leftist leaders, Nayef Hawtmeh and George Habash, who once challenged his authority.

But since the signing of the historic peace accord between Israel and the PLO in Washington in September, the palace has refused any dealings with the Palestinian opposition, in spite of the King's own reservations about the agreement.

But the status of Hamas is slightly more complicated. Hamas, which surfaced in the Gaza Strip in 1988, has historically sprouted from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic organized movement that maintains strong influence in Jordan, Egypt, and other Arab countries.

Since the democratization, the Brotherhood has succeeded in dominating the biggest single bloc in the Jordanian parliament in the general elections of 1989 and 1993. The Brotherhood publicly attacks the PLO leadership and fully endorses Hamas rejectionist strategies and actions against Israel.

But judging by Muslim Brotherhood statements, the strong organization was expected to make Hamas representatives in Jordan stay away from making public statements in the future, partly to avoid a showdown between the Brotherhood and the palace.

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