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Jordan must watch new friends as carefully as old enemies

THE INDEPENDENT, February 07, 1999

Whenever a crisis appears in Syria or Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or Egypt, Israel usually comes up with a conspiracy theory to stir the pot. Trouble in Damascus is attributed to Jordanian security men or Lebanese Christians. Violence in Saudi Arabia's eastern province is put down to Iranian terrorism. Lebanon's turmoil is blamed on Syria, Egypt's guerrilla war on Sudan.

In all these scenarios, Israel is innocent, wanting only peace for the region by honouring its treaties with Arab nations, sometimes - the story goes - protecting regional minorities like the Lebanese Maronites who were, of course, later abandoned. How soon, then, before the Israeli press pronounced on the dangers to the Hashemite Kingdom?

It started on 21 January, with an intriguing article in the newspaper Haaretz which should have sent a chill through those members of the Jordanian royal family who believed that the kingdom, with its Israeli peace treaty, might be immune. "While Jordan was founded on part of the Jewish homeland (sic), several attempts have been made by Arab states - not us - to terminate its existence," Israel Harel wrote in the paper. If King Hussein had been assassinated, "Jordan's 'Arab sisters' would have pounced upon it like vultures and torn it to pieces."

And so it goes on. The Hashemite kingdom "never became a single nation. It has been Israel that has protected the Hashemite crown. and rescued it from threats from the north or east and from domestic enemies." But then came the clincher: "It will ultimately become apparent... that two nations (ie, Israel and Palestine) cannot live on the small piece of land to the west of the Jordan and that two states cannot live there. If nations with vast stretches of land that have no need for additional acreage are feasting their eyes on Jordan, Israel must also stake its claim to Jordan...With that territory - even part of it - we (sic) could solve in co-operation with our peace process partners, many territorial disputes we have with the Palestinians."

As King Hussein lay in a coma in his Amman hospital Crown Prince Abdullah, who was sworn in as Regent yesterday, received messages of prayer and support from many of his neighbours, not least Israel where every citizen - so its Prime Minister assured the prince - was praying for his father. The Americans, too, sent their support in tangible terms - millions of dollars in new grants and promises of protection for Jordan against any aggression. No guesses as to whom the Americans think they are protecting Jordan against - our old friend the Beast of Baghdad.

Indeed, it was only a year ago that President Clinton was telling King Hussein personally that the United States would never allow Iraq to invade Jordan - even though Iraq had not shown the slightest interest in doing so. In fact, the last territorial change along the Jordanian-Iraqi frontier was in Jordan's favour; a present of land from Saddam in grateful thanks for the king's support in the Iran-Iraq war.

Now, however, the pressure is of a different kind. America is putting its prestige - and dollars - into a ragbag of Iraqi opposition groups and would like to base them in Amman - a development that would almost certainly provoke Saddam's anger. King Hussein rejected an American plan to send the Jordanian army into the Iraqi desert to carve out a "safe haven" for Saddam's internal enemies. But will Crown Prince Abdullah do the same?

The pressures here are not only external. If Abdullah allows Jordan to become a springboard for the Iraqi opposition, his 65 per cent Palestinian population - long enraged by Jordan's peace treaty with Israel - will oppose such an alliance. Though he betrayed King Hussein's friendship, Saddam remains a popular figure among most Palestinians; brutal he may be, they say, but at least he still resists the West's demands, its sanctions and its bombing raids. Abdullah - who is once said to have proposed joint Jordanian-Israeli paratroop exercises (to his father's displeasure) - will be confronting these issues within a week.

The prince has in the past denounced "Syrian terrorism", especially after the Jordanians discovered an alleged bomb plot in Amman. And it was Syria which sent its tanks into Jordan to support the Palestinian uprising against King Hussein in 1970. But its then air force commander, Hafez el-Assad - now the Syrian President - refused to give the tanks air cover. For many years, Assad and King Hussein maintained friendly - if not over-warm - relations, the king and the president often telephoning each other to enquire after their families. King Hussein once considered the idea of a marriage between one of his daughters and Basil Assad, the Syrian leader's favourite son, who subsequently died in a road accident.

But Jordan's peace treaty with Israel deeply worried Assad. Jordan's frontier with Israel was stated to be the West Bank - there was no mention of a putative Palestinian state in the annex - and Syria feared that its own demand for the return of the occupied Golan Heights would be isolated.

In private, Assad was harshly critical of America's air raids on Iraq; the Syrians realise - correctly - that future Jordanian support for the Iraqi opposition in Amman will indirectly threaten Syria's interests. When King Hussein appointed Abdullah as crown prince last month, Damascus responded with absolute silence.

This weekend, Israeli "experts" and American "analysts"- most of them former US government officials - have been turning up all over our television stations to express their love for King Hussein and their concern for Jordan's future. It is almost as if the fear of God is being put into Crown Prince Abdullah. Watch out for Syria, the subliminal message goes. Watch out for Iraq. We will protect you. But at what price?

It's therefore worth finishing Israel Harel's article in Haaretz, which concludes with the suggestion that Palestinians could take over part of Jordan, leaving Israel to "annex those parts of the West Bank that are still in our hands." If Israel promoted this plan "instead of vainly expending our energies to perpetuate the survival of a wobbly kingdom which will inevitably collapse. we will serve our interests.. and we will also create an atmosphere conducive to a peace settlement and to mutual trust and conciliation between the nations of the region."

Could this piece of breathtaking cynicism be merely a minority voice, you may ask? Un- fortunately, it's not that long ago that a well-known Israeli politician - now a declared enemy of the Oslo peace agreement - was publicly advocating the expulsion of Palestinians from their West Bank and Jerusalem homes to an exile in Jordan. Jordan, he said, would become Palestine. That man, Ariel Sharon, is now foreign minister of Israel.

Crown Prince Abdullah may admire Israel's paratroopers. But he might also do well - while watching the treacherous Saddam and the silent Assad - to keep a close eye on former General Sharon as well.


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