It was a consolation of sorts to learn that top Jordanian officials have reassured Israel that no plan exists to release Ahmed Daqamseh, who on March 13, 1997, cold-bloodedly murdered seven 11-year-old Israeli schoolgirls.

Although the reassurance came privately from unnamed higher-ups, it is certainly better that it was conveyed at all than to have had no reaction from Amman to the recently appointed Jordanian justice minister’s overt and vociferous agitation to set Daqamseh free.

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In the wake of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, Nahariyim (the word means “two rivers”), was reserved as a tourist site and named, with hopeful optimism, “the Island of Peace.” It was held under Jordanian sovereignty but developed and maintained by several Israeli kibbutzim. It was, terribly, there that a Jordanian corporal opened fire on Israeli children from Beit Shemesh during their school outing 14 years ago.

For the short haul, we can now assume that Daqamseh won’t receive a royal reprieve. Yet the fact that he finds succor so far up Jordan’s legal hierarchy is cause for grave concern. It was deeply perturbing to hear Jordan’s new Justice Minister Hussein Mjali publicly portray the cowardly killer of small girls as a veritable hero. In stark contrast, the soothing messages subsequently relayed to Israel were almost whispered.

This contrast is far from incidental. It attests to unsettling trends in the monarchy next door, which has obviously come a very long way away from the contrition so compellingly expressed immediately after the homicide by the late King Hussein. Israelis haven’t forgotten his gesture of humane humility when he came here personally and visited each of the bereaved families.

This legacy of unreserved empathy is evidently dissipating in today’s Jordan. We have no way of ascertaining whether King Hussein in his day indeed accurately reflected the mood of his people, but he certainly tried to change perceptions for the good. This trend appears to be shifting.

Mjali was appointed to the justice minister’s post in a shakeup last week geared to stem protests inspired by Egypt’s turmoil.

The pro forma logic underpinning the new appointment was to facilitate greater democratic freedoms, including the rights to assembly and speech. How dismal if Mjali embodies the climate of new stirrings for civic liberty in Jordan. How bleak if he stands for what is considered progress in his milieu. To accommodate an invigorated demand for democratic freedoms and opportunities in his kingdom, must King Abdullah also acquiesce to an escalating anti-Israeli inflammatory tone? We would hope not.

THE FACT that Mjali, who served as Daqamseh’s attorney during his trial, could be appointed minister of justice in the first place raises gave questions. Surely his predisposition was no unknown quotient. It would have been no great surprise that he’d be the blusterous chief speaker at a demonstration for Daqamseh’s release.

What is most troubling is the signal to public opinion, in Jordan and beyond. The grassroots is being encouraged to revere Daqamseh as a role model.

Several years ago the killer’s mother told Al-Jazeera: “I am proud of my son and hold my head high. My son did a heroic deed and has pleased Allah and his own conscience. My son lifts my head and the head of the entire Arab and Islamic nation. I am proud of any Muslim who does what Ahmed did... My son told me he has no regrets... He said: The only thing that angers me is that the gun didn’t work properly. Otherwise I would have killed all of the passengers on the bus.”

Minister Mjali apparently endorses some of these sentiments, and he’s not alone. Jordan’s powerful Islamist movement and the country’s 14 trade unions, comprising over 200,000 members, relentlessly campaign for Daqamseh’s release.

King Abdullah must surely be aware that he won’t secure his position by letting the genie of hatred out of the bottle. Instead of appeasing the voices of those who would legitimize the cold-blooded murder of civilians, the reforms he is being pressed to expedite should include a focus on education that rejects senseless hatreds.

The right role model is close at hand. Abdullah should encourage his people to embrace his father’s brave heritage, forthrightly and fearlessly.

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