Diplomatic immunity

'The strength of Jordan is the strength of Israel, because Jordan is guarding our eastern border.'

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September 17, 2005 19:43

 
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A busy social life is part and parcel of the job of a diplomat. You schmooze, you booze and you improve your country's relations with the locals. But if you're Israeli, serving in Jordan half of whose population has relatives in the Palestinian Authority you are somewhat of a persona non grata. Not only are you boycotted by professional unions and most of the media, but just going out to dinner requires a security entourage equivalent to that of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This makes the buzzing around characteristic of most ambassadors a bit more tricky, if not downright difficult. Ambassador Yaakov Hadas is not fazed by this, however. He says he entertains at home, and whoever comes, comes; whoever doesn't, doesn't. Indeed, he exudes an "I-don't-care-what-you-think-of-me" attitude which, coupled with a powerful voice, provides a counter-balance to his short stature and slight build. In any case, the 48-year-old diplomat, who returns to Israel every weekend to be with his wife and children, says he has more important things to worry about than socializing. Like devising ways for Jordanians to flourish economically, for example. Or facilitating the desalination plant in the Jordan valley, to increase water supply for the Jordanians. In other words, what he focuses on is searching for ways to help Jordan be strong. The reason for this, he says, is simple. "The strength of Jordan is the strength of Israel, because Jordan is guarding our eastern border," says Hadas from his spacious, highly secure office at the Israeli embassy in Amman which he has occupied for the last two years. He explains that in spite of the widely held view that the key to Israel's interests can be found in powerful, wealthy Western countries, it is relations with Jordan that "are of the highest strategic importance." Hadas says, "Before each posting abroad [this is his fifth], you prepare yourself, talk to people. You are always confronted with different views of different countries, since there is little consensus among Israelis on these matters. The one exception is Jordan. Everyone I spoke to from the president to the intelligence community to Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom was in agreement about Israel's need for Jordan to flourish." This has become even more necessary since the US invasion of Iraq in April 2003 and the continuing presence of American forces there. The region has become more volatile as a result and many angry Arabs have declared jihad on America and the Zionist entity, saying the US went to war in Iraq to protect Israel's security. Jordan serves as a buffer against terrorists trying to infiltrate Israel or launch attacks across the border the longest one Israel shares with another country part of which is the Israeli-controlled border between the West Bank and Jordan. "Jordan invests a lot in protecting the border that stretches from Beit She'an in the north to Eilat in the south," Hadas says. "And we really appreciate it." To illustrate how crucial this assistance is, Hadas notes that terrorist cells are continually apprehended and put on trial in Jordan for planning mega-terror attacks against Israelis and Americans. Yet, he also points to a recent incident in which a group believed to be connected to al-Qaeda launched a rocket attack from the southern port city of Akaba against US military vessels in the bay and Israeli targets just over the border in Eilat. They missed the Americans but succeeded in hitting an Israeli car. The rocket launchers were located, but the terrorists are still at large. The maximum security set-up of both the Israeli and the American embassies in Amman shows how seriously such incidents are treated. The Israeli embassy is located in a residential building in an upper-class neighborhood, strategically chosen because it stands virtually alone and is surrounded by empty lots. This makes it easier for the Jordanian army to secure the site. Dozens of Jordanian soldiers guard the streets on either side of the building. The streets are closed off by roadblocks. Only residents of the area are allowed to enter by car, after undergoing a security inspection. Despite Jordan's highly vigilant security services, the threat to the Hashemite Kingdom's stability has become more tangible as a result of its support for the US and its relationship with Israel. "Jordan now sees itself as a target not only as a launching pad," Hadas says, not willing to comment on whether Israel is giving Jordan some kind of security assistance. He is, however, aware of the delicate situation he is in due to negative Jordanian attitudes toward Israel, which became more negative during the Palestinian intifada. Many Jordanians perceived Israel as responsible for any harm that came to their Palestinian relatives. He is also aware, he says, of the disillusionment many Jordanians have felt since the 1994 signing of the peace agreement with Israel. The "fruits of peace" the late King Hussein had promised his people as a result of the treaty were water and cash. But a drought hit Israel not long after the document was signed and Jordanians were forced to buy water. And trade slowed down severely during the second intifada that began in 2000 is only now beginning to develop between the two countries. "I know there is a sense of disappointment here, but it is unjustified," says Hadas. "Hussein coined the expression 'fruits of peace ' and everybody was expecting to see them immediately and planning for the future. When only 10-20 percent of your expectations are realized, you become upset...But first of all, there are fruits of peace." Hadas points to the great increase in Jordanian exports to the US as a result of a joint agreement with Israel and the US. A US initiative in 1996 created Qualitative Industrial Zones (factories built in specified areas) to encourage cooperation between Jordan and Israel and reward Jordan for signing the peace treaty with Israel. QIZs can export to the US free of tariffs and quotas on condition that 35% of the exported product be Jordanian- and Israeli-made, with a minimum of 8% Israeli. Jordanian exports skyrocketed. In March 1998, the first QIZ-made products were on a ship to America. That year, total Jordanian exports to the US were $13 million. But by 2004, exports for that year from the QIZs raked in almost $1 billion. There are some problems, of course, says Hadas. For example, most of the factories produce clothing, which the World Trade Organization made tariff-free worldwide as of January 2005. "We are looking for ways to compensate for this, such as expanding the QIZs to include hi-tech," says Hadas, adding that a QIZ-style Jordanian-Israeli-European Union agreement has just been signed and other projects are being examined. Another problem is that Jordanians don't always benefit from the rise in industry. Half the people working in the factories are not Jordanian; most were flown in from Taiwan, Sri Lanka, China and Bangladesh, because Jordanian workers are not skilled enough or disciplined enough to work in a factory. "This is not my problem," says Hadas. "People here are very greedy and want to make a lot of money in a short time." Nevertheless, he says, "it's a zero-sum game" because Jordan does not pay unemployment and there are 20,000 Jordanians who did find jobs at the QIZs. He claims Israeli businessmen are doing business in Jordan not only for money but to help Jordan's economy. "They could go elsewhere in this era of globalization. There are places where the cost of labor is much cheaper and there's no security expenditure...Sure, they don't put all their eggs in one basket, so they have [factories] in Turkey and in Romania...But it's very important for them to be here because they understand this is their contribution." DESPITE HIS attempts to alter the situation, Hadas is given the cold shoulder by many Jordanians. Even his personal secretary, Hiba Tarawneh, who has served at the embassy since it opened says she has had "problems" as a result of where she works. Nowhere is this attitude as apparent than at the Israeli embassy's annual Independence Day receptions. At many Israeli embassies around the world, these affairs attract a good 1,000 people. In Jordan, a mere 200-300 guests show up at what one Jordanian magazine called the "Zionist entity's reception.". Indeed, the Jordanian media in general and the Islamist media in particular is hostile to Israeli diplomats, says Hadas. "Their intention is to make fun of us, he says. "But at the end of the day, it's like the biblical story of the prophet Bilam, who was enlisted by Balak to curse the ancient Israelites. But God interceded and caused Bilam to bless, rather than curse them. When we get exposure intended to harm us, we actually get exposure about Jordanian trade disseminated that we wouldn't have otherwise."

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