The Middle East's lead optimist Hussein: Jordan's king remains upbeat about the peace process, despite the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli's new hard-line prime minister.

Sun Journal

June 19, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- King Hussein of Jordan is the Middle East's leading optimist. Although the Middle East has been the world's most volatile region of the past half century, the king has consistently believed real peace with Israel was not only possible but inevitable.

In August, he will mark 44 years as monarch, a period during which Jordan has been transformed from a predominantly tribal and nomadic society to a modern state. And compared to neighboring states, it has followed an unconventional route in politics.

After protests and unrest at the end of the 1980s, the king chose to open up Jordan's political system.

It has since held two rounds of free multiparty elections for Parliament and written a new national charter that establishes the framework for democracy.

Islamic forces, which make up the largest single bloc in Parliament, charge that the king has not gone far enough and that he still tightly controls the reins of power.

The king was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times during his visit last week to the United States, in advance of an Arab summit that opens Saturday in Cairo.

What do you expect to come out of the Arab summit? Does the Arab world have either the resources or the clout to be able to come up with something to convince the new prime minister of Israel to move forward, not just to enact what has been agreed on so far?

I hope that the Arab summit, which will be the first after many, many years, will bring about reconciliation between those who represent the Arab nation. Complementality is the only way left to us to bring about progress in our entire region.

As far as the Israeli dimension of the problem is concerned, I don't believe the Arab summit should, beyond reviewing developments, do anything but stress our total commitment to all that we have achieved so far and our hope that progress will be made to build further on this foundation.

I believe it is too early, too premature, to go along the path of suggesting that there is any change in the Israeli attitude toward peace.

The elections were an exercise of a democratic process aimed at electing the person who presents the best hope for the people of Israel to lead them through the phase that is ahead. It had nothing to do with a peace camp or those opposed to peace. I believe the overwhelming majority of Israelis are committed to peace.

The peace treaty between Jordan and Israel had an overwhelming majority of votes supporting it in the Israeli Knesset [parliament], probably more than the votes achieved on any other subject over a long period. I don't know where this notion came from that we should regard this election as indicative of a change of course, particularly when we have heard already that the Israeli government intends to honor all its commitments and obligations and, on the other hand, to continue to build with all the partners in the peace process toward achieving a comprehensive peace.

Do you expect the summit in Cairo to be heated?

I don't expect it to be otherwise. There is every need for frankness and candor.

If things don't move as smoothly as you'd like to see them, would you be prepared in Cairo, or somewhere farther down the road, to take steps that would mean cutting back on the relationship with Israel or slowing movement on the peace process?

We will do everything we can to make up for all the time lost and all the opportunities and the dark past. We must continue to build, and nothing is going to slow that down as far as we are concerned.

Do you expect Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to terms acceptable to the Palestinians that will allow the resolution of final status over the next four years?

This is still to come. But I believe the government will respect its commitments and will build on them.

But to be specific: Netanyahu has said he will never engage in talks that would lead to the surrender of any part of Jerusalem.

If we are to think of all that we have said in our lives in that part of the world, we would find it a very gloomy picture. But responsibility brings with it a greater awareness of the needs and requirements for the future for all our peoples in that region.

As far as Jerusalem, I do not believe anyone is suggesting that Jerusalem be divided in the sense of creating walls and barriers. What we are involved in is a process of destroying and removing barriers. Jerusalem, the holy city, is important and is very much a part of the heart and soul of every follower of the three great monotheistic religions. Therefore, it has to be elevated to that status, which means the coming together of all of us.

What happens to the Middle East if the peace process doesn't make the kind of progress that you so optimistically predict? What's your worst-case scenario?

There is no alternative for any of us. We would be failing not only ourselves, but we would be failing all future generations.

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