Hussein plays his peace hand royally

July 29, 1994|By Adam Garfinkle

MONDAY'S White House ceremony, at which King Hussein and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the declaration announcing the end of the state of belligerency between Jordan and Israel, was both less and more than met the eye. These sorts of things usually are.

The fact that Israeli-Jordanian summits are out in the open at last, after more than two dozen secret meetings between September 1963 and this past June 1, is more a reflection of important changes in the Middle East and the world than it is a seminal event. The Hashemite king's interest in making peace with Israel has never been in doubt, but as the leader of a weak state with a majority Palestinian population, he has always needed four basic conditions simultaneously to move forward:

An Israeli government willing to deal; Palestinian legitimation for his dealing; either the support or the absence of effective opposition from his Arab neighbors, and a U.S. administration willing and able to broker and support the result.

For various reasons, the king's planets have all lined up, so to speak, and he did not miss his chance. The rapid and major progress in the Israeli-Jordanian track was predictable and, indeed, predicted.

The summit was also less than met the eye in that Monday's declaration itself says very little that is new or especially interesting. No new initiatives appeared in the text. The ending of the state of belligerency, of course, merely formalized what has been true since roughly 1970, the year that Israeli and Jordanian soldiers fired their last shots in anger.

Indeed, the declaration appears to have been patched together from "old business" and some steamy diplomatic language mainly so that King Hussein and Mr. Rabin would have something to do at the summit other than speechify. And the main purpose of the summit itself -- it seems all too obvious -- had more to do with the Clinton administration's desire to put a happy face on a very sad foreign policy.

Nevertheless, Monday was meaningful and important for less obvious reasons.

First, the elevation of the Jordanian role in the peace process begins the true struggle that must ensue, not between Israel and Jordan, but between Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Perhaps -- coming the week after PLO leader Yasser Arafat tried to claim Jerusalem as the exclusive province of the Palestinians -- the most striking statement in the declaration was the prominent reference to the past, present and future Hashemite role in Jerusalem.

It's not just over Jerusalem that Palestinian and Jordanian interests clash as each negotiates with Israel. Water, refugees, economic linkages and more will, in the end, all have to be settled triangularly. The Arab party that gets to the table with Israel first, with the best deal in hand and noblest spirit at heart, will end up the most satisfied with the result. Jordan has significant advantages over the PLO in this competition.

This, in turn, helps settle Israeli domestic opinion, for Jordan's role limits the potential danger of Palestinian nationalism and makes dealing with the PLO easier to stomach and easier to sell.

Second, there is at least a remote chance that Jordan's decisions may bring closer the day when Syrian leader Hafez Assad finally makes up his mind about the Israelis. In the same vein, peace with Jordan helps the Israeli government sell to its public territorial concessions on the Golan Heights, should talks with Syria ever progress that far.

Third, the king's decision reduces Egypt's relative isolation, and anything that helps President Hosni Mubarak in troubled times is good for regional stability.

Fourth, King Hussein's decision shows how far Jordan has matured as a society and as a polity. While some political violence in Jordan from extremists cannot be ruled out, the royal court does not expect to have to sell peace with Israel through the barrels of secret policemen's guns. Most Jordanians support peace, and Jordan's progress toward genuine political pluralism has created a social basis for public peace that did not exist 10 or 20 years ago. So much for vulgar stereotypes of Arabs as a bunch of fanatics who cannot change.

Fifth, and finally, we must not forget that the sight of King Hussein standing with Mr. Rabin has been beamed to all corners of the Arab and Muslim world. King Hussein is no Yasser Arafat; that's for sure -- he is neither a murderer nor a liar. Rather, he is a man of integrity, compassion and vision. When he shook hands with Mr. Rabin, he brought the very finest qualities of the Arab world with him. The handshake promises genuine peace, and is an example that Mr. Assad and others would do well to study -- if genuine peace is really what they want.

Adam Garfinkle is director of the Middle East Council of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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