The View From Jordan: Have We Gone Too Fast?

An architect of peace with Israel now wonders if the costs outweigh the benefits.

The lives of disenfranchised Palestinians and Jordanians have been uniquely intertwined for decades, and few people illustrate the troubled mixture as much as Taher al-Masri.

Scion of an important Palestinian family from the West Bank town of Nablus, Mr. al-Masri has climbed to the top of Jordan's political ladder and today is widely considered the unofficial leader of Palestinians in Jordan.

As prime minister in 1991, al-Masri led Jordan to the first peace conference with Israel at Madrid, which led to a peace deal three years later. Today he argues that Jordan should have moved more cautiously.

That is because in 1998, even as Israel celebrates the 50th anniversary of its existence, melancholy thoughts pervade the inhabitants of the East Bank of the Jordan River - those who were most affected when 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed to make way for the Jewish state.

Today, there is an entrenched sense of victimhood that is decades deep and difficult to erase, and despair at the historical burden of a lost identity that may never be regained.

Jordan's ties with early Zionists and Israel have been unique among Arab countries: It has proven a natural escape for Palestinian refugees, who today make up more than half of its population, while its strategic position has led to the top-level decision here that peace with Israel is inescapable.

Pendulum swings in the attitudes toward Israel are manifested in al-Masri, who counts among his earliest memories bombs from Israeli planes and his family rushing into shelters.

The day after Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, Arab armies attacked, aiming to destroy the fledgling state. Israeli Jews call the 1948-1949 conflict the "War of Independence;" Arabs refer to it simply as al Nakba, "the catastrophe."

In Transjordan, as Jordan was then called, the influx of 450,000 refugees more than doubled the population.

"Each nation has a target in its life, and our goal was to fight Israel," says al-Masri, whose family stayed on in Nablus, where it came under control of the Transjordan army. When he was 6, his school was closed for a year to accommodate refugees. Al-Masri moved to Amman, Jordan's capital, in 1965 after finishing his education in Texas.

"All Arab leaders kept bombarding the mind of the Arab individual to fight Israel, that Israel was the enemy. Then the king decided to reverse course, and now Israel is a friend," he says. "He may have been able to change in a few months, but ordinary people didn't have that capability, so there was a backlash.

"How to avoid that? You must give the fruits of peace to people, and it didn't happen," al-Masri says.

Despite rough patches, and the current leadership in Israel of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - whom Jordan's King Hussein has rebuked for not "working to fulfill God's will for the final reconciliation of all the descendants of the children of Abram" - the peace with Jordan is still the "warmest" Israel has with any of its Arab neighbors.

But more than 80 percent of Jordanians still consider Israel to be the enemy, according to a January poll. And an opposition rally planned in Jordan last Thursday to coincide with an Israeli Embassy independence reception was not allowed. "After 50 years of struggle, having the Israeli Embassy celebrate its occupation of Palestine here, in Amman, while our public meetings are banned, is simply unbelievable," says Deputy Mohammad Ouran, head of a group of 13 opposition parties in Jordan. "Struggling for the Holy Land is the ABC of our language, and it is a sacred duty for all Arabs to oppose the occupation of Palestine."

The continued turbulence in Jordan stems from the trail of broken lives.

Trail of broken lives

In Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, your neighbor might be a survivor of the World War II Nazi extermination camps. In Jordan, your neighbor is likely to be a Palestinian who was forced from his home in 1948 or 1967.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, the Sinai, and part of Syria's Golan Heights, Israeli buses collected members of West Bank villages and dumped them out at the fallen bridge of the River Jordan, a crossing point into Jordan.

Memories are as sharp as ever of the events of the past 50 years, al-Masri recalls. "If you ask them, people still don't say they are from Amman, but from Haifa [in Israel], or some Palestinian village where their families are from." Many of those villages have since been destroyed. But there are still village-charity societies for many of them, and village ties often remain intact.

One example is that of the village of Lyfta, which was on the outskirts of Jerusalem when its inhabitants were forced to leave in 1948.

"Lyfta was leveled; it doesn't exist anymore," al-Masri says. "Today the Knesset [Israeli parliament] is built on it. Yet those people say they are from Lyfta, they speak with the accent of Lyfta, and they haven't forgotten Lyfta. But nothing will bring Lyfta back."

History of deals

Jordan's peace deal with Israel was not its first close link to Jews across the Jordan River. After conquering Palestine in 1917, Britain produced the Balfour Declaration, which said Britain "favored" the creation of a Jewish "national home" in Palestine. From the days when the Zionist dream began to take root in the 1920s, Transjordan played a unique role among Arabs.

Transjordan was created by the British in 1921. King Abdullah - the grandfather of King Hussein - negotiated with the Zionists and received subsidies from them in the 1930s.

According to one account, King Abdullah and other landlords leased land to the Jewish Agency from 1932 on, and he supported partition plans to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas. This is believed to have been a primary reason for his assassination in 1951.

"The public had the feeling that Abdullah was with the Zionists, and helped them occupy the Galilee," al-Masri says. The king made a "deal," he says, ensuring control over the Al-Aqsa Mosque and holy sites in Jerusalem in exchange for promising to provide displaced Palestinians with Transjordanian citizenship.

"Since then, the effect of the Palestinians - their miseries and their conflict with Israel - has become part of Jordan," al-Masri says. "We are still suffering today from these factors. Even with a separate peace with Israel, the king and the kingdom can't escape fallout from events."

That was the calculation that led to the 1994 peace deal, and it was made in the context of momentum toward a comprehensive peace. The Palestinians had signed the Oslo agreement in 1993, and talks between Israel and Syria were making progress. "The problem came immediately after [the election of] Netanyahu, an ideologue," al-Masri says. The Israeli leader won the May 1996 election promising "peace with security."

"We should have been cautious, and we were not. We thought we could seduce him [toward peace], but we could not," al-Masri says. "Netanyahu is keeping the seeds of conflict in the soil, and one day they will grow into trees."

For King Hussein, who made big promises to his people - Palestinians and Jordanians alike - about peace, the negative turn of events has created a "dilemma," al-Masri says. "His fast steps walking along an unpaved road [toward peace] is not allowing him to do what he feels inside. No one will announce the peace process is dead, so definitely the last to do it will be the king."

If al-Masri had it to do over again, he would have held out in negotiations with Israel until progress for Palestinians was irreversible.

"I don't believe I would have established such a warm peace with Israel before seeing peace with the Palestinians work," he says. "Because, as in 1948, the fallout will come to Jordan again. Instead of going fast and giving false hope, we should have waited."

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