My Word: Royal headaches

King Abdullah is interested in an Israeli-Palestinian agreement because he has a vested interest: keeping his kingdom.

By
January 7, 2012 21:34
King Abdullah of Jordan

King Abdullah of Jordan 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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When I was a student at the Hebrew University a lecturer in journalism told our class that one day we would be invited to a cocktail party and think to ourselves: “Oh, no. Not another one.”

A diplomat once told me he’d heard the same thing.

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Despite the warning, I was vaguely surprised several years later when a visit to the palace in Jordan was canceled and my first feeling was one of relief, not disappointment. I was pleased that I didn’t have to get up extra early to travel to the Allenby Crossing and meet the king – again.

Now, of course, both that Israeli envoy and I would be happy to be in a situation in which we were popping there and back across the border so frequently that a chance to stay home and sleep a bit longer would be more attractive.

In the early days of relations between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom – their heyday, as it turned out – I crossed the River Jordan fairly regularly. I always got a thrill from it, but with each journey the “river deep and wide” that inspired spirituals seemed less and less impressive.

The power of the River Jordan has, of course, always stemmed from its symbolism and not its size. It always represented a huge divide.

Today, I remember those quick jaunts to the palace and elsewhere like a distant dream.

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Petra is incredible; Jerash, interesting; Aqaba, pleasant, and the capital Amman a little on the boring side, but a good guide can still reveal some well-hidden charms.

I covered the development of relations with Jordan from the moment they were announced in 1994. They came as such a surprise that I had to cancel a dental appointment with the undeniably great excuse: “I can’t make it this afternoon. Peace has just broken out.”

I attended the initial talks in a huge tent at Ein Avrona in the Arava, getting excited at the sudden realization that I could simply walk around the table where the two delegations were sitting and interview the unfamiliar faces on the Jordanian side.

The signing of the peace treaty on October 26 was a festive affair. Hearing the gun salute and knowing this was a volley saluting peace was a powerful experience. Watching the balloons spreading their message of hope was wonderful. And I treasure, along with the many photos in my album, the memory of interviewing a high-ranking Jordanian official.

When I asked his name for the news story, he said he couldn’t give it to me “yet.”

After I pushed, “When will you let me write it?” he replied: “At the rate this peace is developing, in about 15 minutes.”

Over the years, I saw him several times in various places.

Sadly, while there was a period in which he was happy to have his name in the Israeli press, in recent years he has again always asked for anonymity. The warm peace I felt under King Hussein has grown decidedly chilly during his son’s reign.

That’s why last week’s meeting in Amman between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho and Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat, while it made no major headlines, was nonetheless significant.

Ditto, the follow-up meeting planned to take place this week. The meetings are the message.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II realizes as much as the ordinary man on the street that nature abhors a vacuum. And that includes human nature.

With most of the Arab world still in turmoil, and presidents tumbling from power at what must seem like a terrifying rate to the remaining leaders, the Hashemite monarch had to step in. The removal of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak from the arena provided Abdullah with an opportunity, and also a need to get involved.

Hosting Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, like a diplomatic cocktail party, appears glamorous. In reality, both require hard work, unsociable hours and trying to be pleasant no matter how you feel.

The Jordanians reported that last week’s meeting was held in a “positive atmosphere” – the diplomatic linguistic equivalent of a forced smile.

Nobody had high expectations of the gathering; nobody was disappointed. I can schedule a dental checkup for next week, next month, and probably the rest of this year, without the caveat that I might have to postpone it to cover a peace agreement.

But I’m not belittling Abdullah’s genuine desire for some kind of Israeli- Palestinian agreement. He’s not interested in it for the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s got a far greater vested interest: keeping his kingdom.

The palace in Amman where I met King Hussein is surprisingly modest for a Middle Eastern monarch. The winter palace in Aqaba even more so. The Hashemite rulers are aware of the precarious position of heads of state who flaunt their wealth and power while their subjects struggle.

Like his father, Abdullah’s taste for life in the fast lane expresses itself in a fondness for racing cars and motorcycles – he is a Jordan National Rally champion – and planes. A free-fall parachutist, he lives dangerously, but he has no death wish.

And like his father before him, King Abdullah has a strategic interest in trying to solve the Palestinian issue. Nearly two-thirds of all Jordanians, including Queen Rania, are of Palestinian origin.

Civil unrest by extremist Palestinian groups continues to be a fear for the future as it was a threat in the past.

The current government is the ninth since Abdullah ascended to the throne on his father’s death in 1999 and its mandate seems to be to implement sufficient royally dictated reforms to keep the kingdom from being torn apart by social, political, Islamist and tribal protests.

Add to that the chaos just beyond the eastern border. King Abdullah is a former military man. He is well aware that the departure of the US forces from Iraq has left a very weak country extremely vulnerable to exploitation by religious extremists and terrorist organizations.

At the most pragmatic level, he can’t afford unrest threatening to spill over from both east and west, and all this while Syria to the north continues to descend into what threatens to become a civil war.

For the same reasons, Israel cannot afford for Jordan – somewhat of a buffer zone – to fall. It would leave the back door wide open in a very dangerous neighborhood.

One of the most serious failings of the Oslo Process – and there’s unfortunately a lot to choose from – was the manner in which it brutally superseded the Madrid Process with all the grace of a coup d’etat ousting a royal house.

Under Madrid, the Jordanian and Palestinian delegations were combined.

Oslo – and all the mini processes that followed when it literally blew up – has destroyed any chance for a “Jordan is Palestine”-style solution, no matter how historically justified it is.

Jordan needs Israel’s help in keeping tensions with the Palestinians under control; Israel needs Jordan for similar reasons.

As several commentators have noted recently, the focus is moving from conflict resolution to conflict management.

We don’t need a piece of paper saying we have achieved peace. A phony peace helps nobody; quiet is far more important.

If the king can help bring about stability, I would be happy to get up at any hour to travel to Jordan and celebrate it with a non-alcoholic cocktail.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
liat@jpost.com

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