An interview with Jordan’s King Hussein on American television triggered a major political storm here Friday that is likely to shape the last days of Israel’s election campaign and may determine its outcome.
Hussein on Thursday night endorsed Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of the center-left Labor party and appeared to revive the so-called “Jordanian option” in the search for peace in the Middle East.
On Friday, the Labor party hailed the monarch’s appearance as a breakthrough toward peace, but the rival Likud Bloc of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir branded it an election gambit likely to backfire on the Labor strategists who arranged it.
Given the anti-Arab climate here, exacerbated by 10 months of Palestinian unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, some analysts wondered whether Hussein’s public embrace might be a kiss of death for Peres, and it was this sentiment that Shamir appealed to Friday.
“I wish to express my regret and dismay over the attempt to drag foreign factors into the election campaign in Israel,” Shamir said a statement. “This is an unprecedented act and a sign of lack of national pride. . . . The results of the elections in Israel will be determined by the people in Israel and not by any foreign interference.”
Others took a different view of the incident, however.
“I see it as a dramatic, 11th-hour equivalent to (former Prime Minister Menachem) Begin’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor on the eve of the 1981 election,” said Harry Wall, director of the Jerusalem office of B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League.
The bombing raid, which came at a time when Likud, then headed by Begin, was lagging in the polls, was seen as the key to turning the 1981 election around.
‘How Will It Play?’
Wall, referring to the different interpretations of the Hussein interview by Labor and Likud, added: “The question is, how will it play with the electorate? . . . Now it is really going to be a question of who does the best selling job.”
The Labor and Likud leaders will have a chance to promote their positions Sunday when they meet face to face for a debate to be shown on Israel Television.
All 120 seats in the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, are at issue in the election, which is scheduled for Nov. 1. No party is expected to win a majority, but the one that wins the most seats will have a chance to form a coalition government and take power. Likud is a slight favorite in most polls.
Ted Koppel, who interviewed Hussein on the ABC-TV program “Nightline,” confirmed that the interview was inspired by aides to Peres, who appeared in another segment of the program Thursday night. Informed sources said Nimrod Novik, a political adviser to Peres, was in direct contact with the royal palace in Amman.
Technically at War
Israel is still technically at war with Jordan, but the two countries have engaged in secret contacts on a number of occasions. In this case, Peres aides told ABC they had reason to think Hussein would welcome an interview. The same aides let Israeli reporters know that the king would make it clear, before Election Day, that he was ready to play a role in peace talks.
Hussein had distanced himself from the peace process last July when he renounced any claim to land west of the Jordan River, an area Jordan controlled from 1949 until Israeli troops seized the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Hussein said in July that it was up to the Palestine Liberation Organization to represent the Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But in the interview Thursday night, Hussein said he is prepared to attend a Middle East peace conference as part of a joint delegation with the Palestinians, if requested to do so by the PLO. He described Peres’ peace proposals as “encouraging . . . interesting . . . a step forward.” And he described as an “absolute disaster” the approach to the Palestinian problem advocated by Shamir.
Peres Gives Details
Hussein’s comments are hand-in-glove with Peres’ plan for an international peace conference, in which Jordan would play a major role, to settle the Middle East conflict. Peres disclosed new details Monday, saying that West Bank and Gaza Arabs would be permitted to elect their own delegates to peace talks.
“The first thing I intend to do if I shall be elected prime minister is to call upon the United States, Jordan, the Palestinians, together with other parties to the conflict, to convene an international conference as soon as possible,” Peres told reporters last Sunday.
Until Hussein’s appearance on “Nightline,” Peres’ proposals seemed empty, a Jordanian option without Jordan.
Shamir has offered no comparable plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He generally dismisses calls for multinational talks in favor of separate talks with each of Israel’s Arab neighbors.
Hussein Not Assailed
Despite his harsh words Friday about foreign meddling, Shamir refrained from attacking Hussein.
“It is important to remember that in the future King Hussein will be Israel’s negotiating partner for peace, and therefore his being pulled into the electoral campaign in Israel is damaging and harmful,” he said.
Other Likud officials were less restrained. In comments published by the Jerusalem Post, one said that Hussein had engaged in “crass intervention in Israel’s election campaign” and “obviously has contempt for the intelligence of the Israeli voters.”
Yuval Neeman, a member of Tehiya, a party that advocates annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said Peres “is desperately trying to find things that will change the tide in his favor.”
A Labor spokesman scoffed at notions that Hussein acted solely to help Peres, saying that Hussein “is not a Labor party clerk.”
Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip kept a wary eye on the maneuvering. They are suspicious that Peres and Hussein were both planning to push them to the back in any future talks and diminish the pivotal role in the Middle East taken by Palestinians as a result of their uprising.
“We do not rule out cooperation with Jordan, but it must be cooperation as equals,” said Hana Siniora, editor of the newspaper al Fajr and a prominent pro-PLO figure in the West Bank.