Jordan king charts his own course

Abdullah's brief stop in Israel yesterday was lower profile than his father's approach.

Jordan's King Abdullah II visited Israel for a few hours yesterday, the first time since ascending the throne 14 months ago.

The brevity of the call at the port of Eilat underscored the complex waters the young monarch has been navigating since he inherited the crown from his father, the late King Hussein, in February 1999.

Steering the royal yacht into the Israeli port - much like his pilot father would have - King Abdullah was greeted by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and they held brief talks.

But King Hussein played a much more visible role than his son has in the Middle East peace processes - supporting the historic Israeli-Palestinian peace pact, and signing the second peace treaty, after Egypt, with Israel in 1994.

King Abdullah, observers say, is not trying to fill his father's shoes so much as break in a new pair of his own. While the politics of peace is a natural priority, the new king is putting more energy into economic reforms - something Jordanians say his father never engaged in directly.

"He has an economic agenda rather than a political one, and he thinks of himself as King of Jordan, not king of all the Arabs. He's not looking for some external role which is beyond Jordan's ability," says Fahed Fanek, a Jordanian political analyst, in a telephone interview from Amman.

But in a region where the presence of an Arab leader in Israel still makes a controversial political statement, Abdullah insisted on an extraordinarily low-key visit that seemed a balancing act between Mr. Barak's call for closer ties, and Arab pressure to halt the process of normalization with the Jewish state until it reaches comprehensive peace deals with all its neighbors.

Back home, Jordan's 1994 peace deal with Israel does not enjoy widespread popularity. In a kingdom where most of the subjects - and Queen Rania herself - are Palestinian, Abdullah must keep still-unresolved disputes such as the future disposition of Jerusalem and several million Palestinian refugees at the top of his list of priorities.

But sharing perhaps equally important ranking are the high expectations - fed to the public by his father as a way to sell peace - that relations with Israel would unlock the door to prosperity.

Instead, Jordan's economy has declined in the past five years. Abdullah inherited a country in which the economic growth rate is lower that the rate of population increase, driving living standards lower every year. And Israel, Jordanians complain, has done little to aid economic cooperation, instead upholding protectionist trade policies.

"The potential for cooperation is great, and we have to explore all possible ways to overcome any and all obstacles that prevent such fruitful cooperation," Abdullah said at a joint press conference with Barak. "I am confidant that you, Mr. Prime Minister, share my eagerness to achieve progress on this front."

Abdullah was less eager to offer the full-blown diplomatic stature Barak had sought from the visit, which has been many months in the making. Abdullah's first planned visit to Israel was postponed because he was in the midst of a confrontation with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist group whose Amman office he shut down last fall. To play hardball with Muslim militants at the same time he came calling on Israel, Jordanians say, would have made him vulnerable to looking too conciliatory to Israel.

Two more planned visits after that were called off, first because of a stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, and then in February because he didn't want to visit Israel at the moment it was bombarding Lebanon. And now that he sensed a better outlook to dock in Israel for a few hours, the Royal Palace in Amman appears to have sent out messages to the Jordanian press that the visit should be downplayed. Most of the daily newspapers in Jordan, which are given official "guidance" over what should be reported and usually track all of the royal couple's public activities on the front page, completely ignored the visit.

"The king does not want to be seen like he's in the laps of the Israelis. He doesn't want a lot fanfare, so this is kind of a halfway gesture to them," says one Jordanian source.

Just over a year ago, there were rumblings across the Middle East that the politically untested Abdullah, educated in elite British and American boarding schools and universities, enjoyed such a heavy dose of Western tutelage that his abilities in Arabic - as well as diplomacy - were questionable. But observers in Jordan say he has risen to the occasion by working at rebuilding relations with Arab countries, which were sometimes strained under his father's helm.

Indeed, the king has favored an unconventionally hands-on approach. On several occasions, he has disguised himself - as a taxi driver to hear the complaints of average people, as an old man to see how he would be treated at a government hospital, and once as a journalist to see how trade officials would respond to his questions. The idea was to make bureaucrats aware that their activities were being monitored.

After just over a year in office, however, Jordanians say Abdullah is in some ways more popular than his father. His agenda of privatization and economic reform has won him respect because it represents a more focused and realistic Jordan, one that is less interested in jockeying with its neighbors in Egypt and Syria for the title of regional powerbroker.

"I think he is setting a precedent for a new generation of rulers, and this is in the back of the minds of all Arab leaders," says Mr. Fanek. "We thought he would rule through institutions and wouldn't know how to rule himself, but in fact he is ruling and winning respect."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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