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Jordan Sees an Opening for Mideast Peace

Times Staff Writer

Israel and the United States aren’t the only governments that are eager to get on with the post-Yasser Arafat era. Even before Arafat was laid to rest last week by mourning throngs in the West Bank, Jordan’s King Abdullah II was already pressing his vision for a renewed Middle East peace effort -- one free from the polarizing presence of the revered and reviled Palestinian icon.

In an editorial published on the day of Arafat’s funeral, Abdullah all but hailed his death as a new beginning for the region.

“Events provide fresh opportunities,” he wrote in the New York Times. “New Palestinian leadership can carry forward the vision of a viable, independent Palestine by delivering on the reforms that statehood involves: competent governance, investments in public welfare, fighting corruption, tougher security against terrorism and a real partnership at the peace tables.” The statement amounted to a thinly veiled condemnation of the Arafat era.

Nevertheless, Abdullah marched in Arafat’s funeral procession in Cairo, and flags in Amman, the Jordanian capital, fly at half-staff.

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The dual response underscored Jordan’s enduringly complex and bittersweet relationship with the Palestinian president and his cause. Over the last 35 years, the status of that relationship has ranged from violent conflict to a partnership of convenience in the quest for a Palestinian state.

Now, observers say Arafat’s passing frees Jordan to resume an active role in a peace process that has been stalled for two years.

Abdullah, and his father, the late King Hussein, before him, always “kept up the veneer of supporting the Palestinian leader,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group, a research foundation that studies countries in conflict.

But in recent years, Jordan had come to the same conclusion as Washington and Jerusalem: Arafat was the problem.

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“To some extent, it was a personal thing,” Hiltermann said. “They just couldn’t get along with Yasser Arafat.”

Hiltermann doubted that Arafat’s death would immediately pave the way for a revived peace process. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government has imposed its will on the Palestinians for the last two years with no flak from Washington. Without American pressure, he’s skeptical that Sharon will deal fairly with the new Palestinian leadership.

“Israel is in such a superior position that it doesn’t need to make peace,” he said.

Western diplomats in Amman say the government has largely kept its distance from Arafat, regularly making supportive statements to appease its large Palestinian population but letting Egypt assume the role of main Israeli-Palestinian intermediary.

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Arafat was always more popular with the Arab masses than with his fellow leaders in the region, but his relationship with the Jordanian government was particularly tricky. More than any other Arab country, Jordan’s destiny has been intertwined with that of the Palestinians, and consequently with Arafat.

The kingdom is home to millions of displaced Palestinians, with estimates running as high as 60% of the country’s 5.6 million residents. This mix has, at times, threatened the stability of the country.

In the wake of Israel’s 1967 victory over several Arab countries, including its conquest of the West Bank of the Jordan River, Palestinian militiamen set up camp in neighboring Jordan. Arafat eventually emerged as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization -- one of several militant groups that made cross-border raids into Israel, flouted Jordanian law and formed a virtual state within a state.

King Hussein at first offered the guerrillas training and assistance. But as their power and audacity increased -- as they hijacked planes, clashed with the Jordanian army and controlled parts of Amman -- Hussein moved to rein in the militias.

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The tensions culminated in what became known as Black September, a violent 1970 offensive to tame and disarm the Palestinians. After a series of failed cease-fires, the militias were largely expelled, mainly to Lebanon, by the summer of 1971.

Arafat’s Fatah faction, in response, called for the overthrow of the Jordanian “puppet separatist authority.”

The Palestinian threat to Jordan’s stability has largely faded. Middle- and upper-class Palestinians have been integrated into the society and the economy, while poorer refugees remain marginalized in camps.

Despite the lingering bad blood, Hussein and Arafat eventually managed to forge a working relationship based on a clear common goal.

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“Jordan’s interest is to see an independent Palestinian state,” said Mohammed Alayyan, publisher of the independent Jordanian daily Al Ghad.

A true Palestinian state would relieve Jordan of the burden of caring for so many refugees. Peace on its western border would eliminate the persistent worry that the Palestinian- Israeli conflict would again threaten to engulf the kingdom.

Toward that end, Hussein worked steadily to nudge Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table and ensure U.S. involvement in the process. In October 1998, the terminally ill Hussein interrupted his cancer treatment to help mediate the Wye River peace negotiations in Maryland.

Under Abdullah, observers and diplomats say, Jordan disengaged from the process, frustrated with Arafat’s unfulfilled promises and apparent reluctance to rein in extremist groups.

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Now the young king is expected to launch a post-Arafat campaign to revive the peace process, starting with a visit to Washington before the year is out.


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