Bush must allay concerns to cement Jordan's support

May 06, 2004|By Samuel L. Lewis and Jonathan Jacoby

WHEN JORDAN'S King Abdullah II visits President Bush today, it will be one of Mr. Bush's most important meetings about the Middle East with another head of state.

The king has concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the United States needs to address in order to help stabilize the situation in Iraq, reduce anti-American fury in the Middle East and protect our ally, Israel. Yet the critical importance of Jordan to American interests is often overlooked.

As the June 30 deadline for transferring power in Iraq nears, Jordan - as one of America's closest allies - must start playing an active, visible role in supporting America's transition plans. But it is difficult for an Arab leader such as King Abdullah to openly associate himself with U.S. policies in the region so long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fuels anger and tension in the Arab street.

FOR THE RECORD - Correction An incorrect middle initial was given for Samuel W. Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, in an article on yesterday's Opinion Commentary page. The Sun regrets the error.

The Jordanian monarch was scheduled to meet with Mr. Bush last month but canceled the trip after Israel killed Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi. With the assassination coming so soon after Mr. Bush had endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the king felt that the cards would have been stacked against him if he went ahead with the meeting.

But after Israel's Likud Party rejected Mr. Sharon's plan this week, Mr. Bush has a new opportunity to take concrete measures that allay Jordan's concerns.

The Jordanians fear that Israel's policy of targeted killings, together with the increasing isolation and distress felt by Palestinians in the West Bank, will stimulate a steady exodus of Palestinians into Jordan. While a mass migration of Palestinians out of "Greater Israel" is the dream of many on the Israeli right, it would be a nightmare for the Hashemite Kingdom. And the destabilizing effect it would have on the region would be disastrous.

There are at least three steps the administration should take:

The United States has to put meat on the bones of its commitments to the Palestinians, including the promise it obtained from Israel to evacuate all illegal settlement outposts and freeze settlement construction. This will go a long way to responding to concerns that Palestinians will start moving from the West Bank into Jordan.

The United States must follow up on those promises and firmly object to actions that undermine them, such as Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement shortly after the Bush-Sharon meeting that he would invest tens of millions of dollars in settlements beyond Israel's security barrier.

The administration must demonstrate that it is serious about nurturing and supporting moderate Palestinian leaders. An opportunity was lost last summer after the June 2003 meeting in Aqaba of President Bush, Mr. Sharon, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah.

Now it is incumbent upon the president to find ways to strengthen those Palestinians who share our interest in a viable two-state solution, such as Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, former security chief Mohammed Dahlan and others. America's criteria for interlocutors are not too high to find eligible Palestinians. The United States hasn't abandoned its effort to identify and work with local partners in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it need not do so in the Palestinian arena.

Contrary to reports, it is critical that Mr. Bush reaffirm in writing what he wrote in his letter of assurances to Israel, that a final settlement "should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338," which have long been endorsed by several American presidents and the international community as the basis for an enduring, two-state solution.

Because Mr. Bush also referred to "new realities ... including already existing major Israeli population centers" and asserted that "any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities," there is a widely held perception, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, that the president diminished or effectively canceled the U.S. commitment to the framework established by 242 and 338.

Unless President Bush reassures King Abdullah and all the parties of America's unequivocal commitment to these resolutions, their effectiveness could be irreparably damaged and it is doubtful that any basis could again be found for an agreement negotiated by both Israel and the Palestinians.

The formula of exchanging "secure and recognized boundaries" for "withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war" is the only realistic prescription for realizing President Bush's vision of two states - Israel and Palestinian - living side by side in security and peace. And that vision is a critical element of American's mission of fostering freedom, democracy and stability in the Middle East, a mission in which Jordan has been a vital and faithful partner.

Samuel L. Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, is a senior policy adviser to Israel Policy Forum. Jonathan Jacoby is director of the Israel Policy Forum's Institute for Policy and Communications.

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