Key Peace Player Jordan Feels Slighted by US

Despite high US aid per capita, kingdom eyes American billions for Israel and Egypt.

Expectations were high in Jordan after King Hussein signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994.

Jordan would play a pivotal peacemaking role, alongside America and Israel, in the Middle East. And the cash reward - largely from US coffers and joint Israeli business and tourism - would bring an economic boom.

Then the regional momentum shifted. In May 1996, Israel elected right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stiffened the terms for peace; and US help - though significant - fell far short of Jordanian expectations.

Jordan has often proved that it can play a crucial role in preserving peace. But widespread disillusionment at home is eating away at the king's popularity, diplomats and analysts say.

US and other aid may be critical until peace begins to pay its own dividends, though some argue that the diplomatic muscle has already allowed the king to take a tougher stand on problems at home.

"We are caught in the middle," said Interior Minister Nathir Rashid, in an interview.

"The peace is not working, and the war is not over. We are not rewarded by Israel or the US or the European Union, but we always pay the price for any mistake."

Jordan can be forgiven for expecting a gold mine after making peace with Israel. Every year since 1979, when Egypt and Israel agreed to the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty at Camp David, Egypt has received from the US $2.1 billion in cash and military hardware. Israel gets $3.1 billion.

A windfall was expected here, too. "The king was strong and thought he could build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea," says one analyst. "There were plans to make the desert bloom, turn the Jordan Valley into a park, and make it one of the wonders of the world. But nothing happened."

Many believe that the reward for burying 45 years of violent enmity with the Jewish state has been negligible. Combined with a struggling economy, strict new press laws, and an unbalanced election system that has prompted Islamist parties to boycott a Nov. 4 parliamentary vote, the impression has grown that the king's high-profile role abroad isn't translating into democratic gains at home.

On paper, the figures of increasing US aid look impressive: Jordan is receiving nearly 20 times what it did last year. It is the sixth-largest recipient of non-food US Agency for International Development money in the world, and $637 million in official debts has been forgiven.

Jordan is tied with Thailand for the largest US-financed military training program in the world, for 200 military personnel. Last year, it received used US military hardware valued at $100 million - including 18 helicopters, 50 tanks, 250 trucks, and a C-130 transport plane - and the US is providing $175 million financing for the delivery of 16 F-16 jet fighters.

There have also been two joint military exercises so far, further highlighting how far Jordan has shifted toward the Western camp after King Hussein pledged sympathy for Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein during the 1990-91 Gulf War.

President Clinton has declared Jordan a special non-NATO ally, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said during a visit last month that she was "trying to get as much aid for Jordan as possible," but made clear that "it is no secret that we have a very tight budget."

Still, US assistance totals just $126 million this year - a tiny fraction of the annual peace dividend paid out to Israel and Egypt.

"It is not a reward, but a recognition of the type of sacrifices Jordan is making," says a Western diplomat here. "There have been ups and downs, and this cushions the downs. Jordan has been good to the US, and if it helps the king manage his domestic problems, that's OK."

Previous examples of US largess to Egypt and Israel helped fuel high expectations. But Jordan's small population of 4.5 million means that it receives nearly twice as much per person as Egypt, which has a population of some 62 million.

"This is a very small economy," explains the diplomat. "When you drop $100 million here, it has a major impact."

For some Jordanians, though, the American efforts may also help deflect attention from domestic problems.

"Our friends in Israel and the US are giving the king the feeling he is secure, that his internal policies are his business," says one prominent analyst who asked not to be named. "If he is not very democratic, if he shuts down the weekly tabloid newspaper or deals badly with the opposition, what is that compared to his strategic alliance with the US?

"The king is on the 'good side' of the peace process," he adds, "and this gives him the feeling that he is free to do what he wishes."

Among the king's most vocal critics is Leith Shbeilat, a former member of parliament and a respected Islamist who has been jailed twice for his criticism of the monarchy. When released last November, he was picked up at the prison by the king, who personally drove him home.

"Jordanians are discovering that we are becoming the Arab Zionists," says Mr. Shbeilat, voicing the view of many Islamists who reject peace and are anxious about closer US ties. "Jordan has taken its strategic decision to side with Israel, which is anti-Arab and anti-peace."

Still, few Islamists complain about the king's performance since Sept. 25, when agents of Israel's espionage agency, Mossad, attempted to assassinate a leader of the extremist Palestinian group Hamas in Amman.

Through deft diplomacy that involved President Clinton, the king squeezed the Israelis for the antidote for the poison used by the would-be assassins, and then won the release of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and scores of Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

"This so-called unpopular [peace with Israel] policy has been effective and paid off," says Mustafa Hamarneh, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "The king could never have won all those concessions without following this policy. No amount of pressure would have worked [to move the Israelis].

"America is not an honest broker [in the peace process], because it is toeing the Israeli line, which is aggressive and belligerent," he adds. "But what options does Jordan have, if these are the rules of the game?"

Interior Minister Rashid notes that, in contrast to US claims of a "tight" budget, Congress has allocated $100 million - just shy of Jordan's total annual aid package - to eventually move the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

"We feel we are very good friends of the US," he says. "But we need more help."

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