Jordan Backpedals to Win Back Arabs
Shunned by Arab brethren for making peace with Israel, Jordan's King Hussein accommodates foes of Jewish state
AMMAN, JORDAN — LESS than three months after ending a 48-year-long state of war with Israel, Jordan's King Hussein is backpedaling on improving ties with the Jewish state due to strained relations with other Arab nations and growing dissent at home.
The king appointed a new government earlier this month that includes critics of the peace treaty with Israel signed Oct. 26.
And he is attempting to revive coordination among Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese to push Israel to commit itself to withdraw troops from land it seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict before any further peace agreements are reached in the region.
Although Jordan's shift is not expected to set back the slow-moving Middle East peace process, it could impede an Israeli drive to establish closer ties with Arab countries, political analysts say.
``Jordan now fears that it has just extended a bridge for Israel into the Arab world, while Israel has not even expressed willingness to pull out from all the occupied Arab territories,'' a well-informed source close to the government says.
Syrians and the Palestinians have expressed concern that Israel is using its peace treaty with Jordan to enhance its negotiating position for peace deals with its Arab neighbors.
Many Arab nations are snubbing Jordan because of its treaty with Israel. For example, Syria's ambassador left Amman one year ago during Jordan-Israel peace talks, and a new one has yet to be named.
``Jordan has never had such bad relations with the Arab countries,'' a Jordanian diplomat says. ``It has never been as isolated in the Arab world.''
On Jan. 8, King Hussein changed the government of Prime Minister Salam al-Majali, who had negotiated the peace treaty with Israel.
Of the 30 ministers who serve in the government, the prime minister and several key ministers were replaced.
At a parliament session last Thursday, new Prime Minister Sherif Zeid Bin Shaker indicated that the governement will tolerate opposition to the treaty. ``There should be room for pluralism and dialogue,'' he told the members.
Prime Minister Bin Shaker is expected to link the pace of normalizing relations with Israel to any progress that Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians might make in achieving peace settlements with Israel.
In his instructions to his cousin and life-long confidante, the king directed the new prime minister to work toward achieving ``comprehensive peace in the region'' - a statement that was interpereted as a signal to Syria and the Palestinians that Jordan will support Syrian and Palestinian demands for a total Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
But one of the government's first priorities is to heal the rift with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the sources say.
``Reconciliation with the Palestinians is key to breaking Jordan's isolation in the Arab world and strengthening the Arab negotiating position vis a vis Israel,'' says another source close to the government.
Jordanian officials say King Hussein is alarmed by the lack of progress in the implementation of the PLO agreement with Israel for Palestinian self-rule.
And Jordanians now fear that any anti-Israeli violence by Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories could spill over here, where at least half of the population is of Palestinian descent.
But last week, Jordan's diplomatic shift started bearing fruit. Both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat are scheduled to arrive here in coming days on separate visits, the first since Jordan's treaty with Israel.
Egypt will attempt to act as mediator between Jordan and Syria and Jordan and Saudi Arabia to improve their strained relations.
According to political analysts and Western diplomats, Israel had hoped to neutralize Jordan on the issue of East Jerusalem by recognizing King Hussein's custodianship of the Islamic holy sites in the city as part of the peace treaty.
But Palestinians and many other Arabs have accused Jordan of legitimizing Israeli control of East Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1967 and contains key Islamic religious sites.
King Hussein felt the severity of Jordan's isolation at a Middle East economic summit in Casablanca on Dec. 14.
Moroccans kept his plane circling above the city for two hours before allowing it to land.
And Arab leaders there not only refused to back Jordan's custodial role over Jerusalem sites, but Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam criticized the king's statement that only God had sovereignty over Jerusalem, prompting King Hussein to exit Casablanca before the conclusion of the summit.
Prime Minister Bin Shaker has told several politicians that Jordan's handling of the Jerusalem issue and its drive to accelerate peace with Israel proved to be diplomatic blunders that alienated the previous Jordanian government and caused serious rifts in the Arab world.