King charts new Mideast course

Jordan's young monarch broke from his late father's style this week

Jordan's King Abdullah made a bold move this week that signals his commitment to peace in the Middle East and the reorientation of his kingdom toward the Arab world.

Plainclothes security men whisked Hamas leaders from Amman's airport, just after they returned from Iran on Wednesday. The king had ordered their offices shut down one month ago, when the men were out of the country.

Hamas is the Islamic Resistance Movement that employs terrorist acts to disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and continues to call for the destruction of Israel.

Despite pressure from Israeli and US officials - and Jordan's own 1994 peace deal with the Jewish state - the late King Hussein permitted Hamas "political" offices here. But as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators eye final-status peace talks, the new monarch has moved decisively the other way.

"Jordan couldn't go on forever hosting Hamas and promoting peace," says Jordanian political analyst Rami Khouri. He says the move is a boost to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - who is despised by Hamas for making peace with Israel - that will also help Jordan's relationship with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"Abdullah doesn't have the historical and emotional baggage that his father had," says Mr. Khouri. "He's zeroing in much more clearly on what he sees as Jordan's national interest." That means pushing for peace, he says, while "disentangling" from the nitty-gritty focus on Israel that consumed his father.

"It's a step to prepare the land for final-status talks," says Gazi Hamed, editor of the Al-Rassalah newspaper in Gaza. "I think Hamas will pay the price."

Jordanian officials accuse Hamas of violating their "gentlemen's agreement" by engaging in military training and stashing weapons for attacks on Israel. Hamas denies the charges, but Prime Minister Abdur-Rauf Rawabdeh said that Jordan would remain an "oasis of security and stability" and will "never accept among us those who eat our food and fight with the sword of others."

Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mishal and spokesman Ibrahim Ghosheh, both Jordanian nationals of Palestinian descent, were taken into custody at the airport. Politburo member Musa Abu Marzouk, who holds a Yemeni passport, was deported to Iran.

The three have been among the most strident in their rejection of the peace process, though there have been more accommodating signals from Hamas leaders inside Gaza and the West Bank - including Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin - since last spring. Stung in the previous year by several arrests and killings of ranking operatives and bombmakers at the hands of Israeli intelligence services, the Hamas organization has shown signs of internal debate about the utility of armed attacks.

Each sign of change, however, was met by a fierce barrage of criticism from Hamas chiefs abroad - especially those based in Amman.

"[The Jordan arrests] will have a good impact, because they will enable Hamas [leaders] in Gaza and the West Bank, who have always been more moderate and favored a more political line, to engage as political players rather than as terrorists," says Jonathan Paris, a Mideast expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Jordanian officials had vowed repeatedly to arrest the threesome if they came back, and their high-profile arrival - Mr. Mishal spoke to the Arab-wide Al-Jezeera television before leaving Tehran, asking the king to reconsider - was seen as a challenge.

But the arrests will also complicate Jordan's already tricky political arrangement with the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest political grouping - from which Hamas was born - and other Islamists. Abdul Majid Thneibat, spiritual leader of the brotherhood, met the prime minister twice to ask him to cancel the arrest orders.

"We feel that our efforts to contain the crisis have failed," Mr. Thneibat was reported as saying. "We are disappointed and regret the government's moves."

For long-standing critics of Jordan's monarchy and the peace process, the removal of Hamas is a sellout. "Hamas has always been a card in the hands of Jordan," and Jordan's policy is "subservient to the Zionists and the Americans," says Leith Shbeilat, who was imprisoned three times by the late king. "Now the Zionist program is being applied by Arab hands."

Jordan's peace deal with Israel has yet to yield the economic fruit that was first promised, causing dismay among many Jordanians. King Hussein's especially close relations with Israeli leaders also helped to isolate Jordan among many Arab nations.

Abdullah spent the first months of his reign traveling throughout the Arab world - and pointedly not to Israel - to reestablish close contact with Arab leaders. Though the latest moves against Hamas fit Israel's agenda, it may also be an extension of Jordan's reorientation.

"This is very much in keeping with the policy of the last five months," says Mr. Khouri. "You want to support the Palestinians [Arafat's authority] if you can, and if you can't, just stay out of their way."

Hamas has been subject to periodic crackdowns across the region, depending on the ebb and flow of the political climate. Arafat especially has been harsh at times, detaining hundreds of activists in the past to comply with agreements he made with Israel to curb terror attacks against Israeli civilians. Some top Hamas officials are now held in Palestinian prisons.

Jordan's Hamas links also have blown hot and cold, though more than half its population is made up of refugees forced from Palestine in 1948, and during later Arab-Israeli wars.

Jordan expelled Mr. Abu Marzouk in 1995, after which he was arrested in the US. Hussein permitted his return in 1997. That year, the king intervened to save the life of Mishal, who was the target of a botched assassination attempt by Israeli Mossad agents in Amman.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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