The king’s gambit

MARCUS GEE August 15 1988

The king’s gambit

MARCUS GEE August 15 1988

The king’s gambit



Until last week, the nightly news on Jordanian television included a full weather forecast for Jerusalem and the West Bank of the River Jordan. The TV weather map made no distinction between the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Jordan on the East Bank. Although Jordan lost control of the area in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Amman has maintained close ties with the West Bank’s more than 750,000 Palestinian inhabitants, who carry Jordanian passports. But last week, the news

program abruptly dropped its West Bank weather segment. The reason: a dramatic broadcast announcement by Jordan’s King Hussein that he was severing links with the West Bank and accepting the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. “Jordan is not Palestine,” the king said.

Hussein’s surprise statement threw Middle East politics into turmoil. Many analysts had considered Jordan to hold the key to a peace settlement between Israel and the Arab world. Under a plan advocated by U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Jordan’s government would have been the prime negotiator for the Palestinians. And some Israelis have suggest-

ed that a confederation between Jordan and a semi-autonomous West Bank might follow an eventual Israeli withdrawal. Israel, with Washington’s support, has refused to open direct negotiations with the PLO, which it regards as a terrorist organization. But Hussein’s statement, which followed eight months of intifadeh—violent anti-Israeli protests on the West Bank and among the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip—appeared to leave the PLO as the only credible negotiating partner for Israel on the

future of the occupied territories.

Hussein, who said that cutting links with the West Bank would assist the “glorious uprising’’ there, acted promptly. The king dissolved Jordan’s parliament, 30 of whose 60 members represented the West Bank, and cancelled a $1.5-billion development plan for the area. Four days later, Jordan announced plans to dismiss more than 21,000 Palestinian civil servants working on the West Bank as teachers, social workers, clerks and health officials.

Still, Hussein’s actions may not have been as decisive as they seemed. Far from trying to help the PLO, Hussein might have been handing it the impossible task of administering the West Bank—with hopes that its failure

would underline Jordan’s vital role. Said Asher Susser, a leading authority on Jordan at Tel Aviv University: “He is trying to indicate to all and sundry, particularly to the Palestinians in the occupied territories and to the PLO, that it would be very difficult either to proceed in the peace process or to conduct the daily lives of the people on the West Bank without Jordan.” Relations between the king and PLO leader Yasser Arafat have been strained since the “Black September” civil war of 1970, when Palestinian radicals tried to overthrow him. Currently, more than 60 per cent of Jordan’s 2.8 million people are Palestinians. An independent Palestinian state on the West Bank could exert a power-

fui pull on Jordan’s Palestinians and undermine the legitimacy of Hussein’s Hashemite regime. “If Jordan does not play a central role in the determination of any Palestinian settlement,” said Susser, “the Palestinians may end up determining the future of Jordan.”

PLO officials were provoked into action by Hussein’s announcement. After meeting through the night in Baghdad, the PLO central committee called for a special meeting of the organization’s highest decision-making body, the 450member Palestine National Council.

The king’s action presents Arafat with a serious challenge. With Jordan out of the picture, at least temporarily, he faces pressure to negotiate with Israel. But radicals in the PLO oppose any compromise with Israel. And the

Israeli government is certain to oppose any attempt by the PLO to take over administrative duties on the West Bank performed, until last week, by Jordanian officials. “Arafat has to make some brave decisions,” said Othman Halak, publisher of the pro-Jordanian newspaper Al Nahar in East Jerusalem.

“Now is his time. Is he a truly strong leader or is he just a survivor?”

Jordan also created trouble for Israel’s Labor party, which had made the so-called Jordanian option—Jordan’s involvement in the West Bank’s future—a main plank of the peace platform it will present to voters in the general election scheduled for Nov. 1. Labor party Leader Shimon Peres, foreign minister in Israel’s coalition government, insisted that Jordan would still play a role in the peace process. But the right-wing Likud bloc, which opposes giving up the occupied territories, seized on Hussein’s announcement as proof that Labor’s proposals were unrealistic.

The Palestinians themselves reacted to the king’s speech with a mixture of joy and trepidation. While most welcomed Hussein’s recognition of the PLO

as their legitimate representative, many expressed anxiety about the practical consequences. Many families had relied on the salaries payed to West Bank civil servants by the Jordanian government. Still more depended

on the right to freely export farm produce and manufactured goods to Jordan. The future of trade and the status of Jordanian passports held by Palestinians remained unclear. But many feared that they would become like the stateless residents of the Gaza Strip,

who were ruled by Egypt from 1948 to 1967 but never granted citizenship. “We shall be the Gazans of 1988,” said publisher Halak. “Up to now we all were Jordanian citizens. But who knows how they are going to treat us now.”

PLO supporters said that if Hussein was breaking with the West Bank to harm the PLO, he could not expect to reassert Jordanian influence whenever he wanted. “It is not a chess game,” said Gabriel Baramki, acting president of Birzeit University, near the West Bank town of Ramallah. “We are not pawns here. Hussein has taken a well-calculated decision. If he ^ wants to reverse it, he cannot 2 do it without our consent.”

Two days after Hussein’s speech, Jordanian television resumed its West Bank weather reports—in a shortened form. I For those who hoped for a continuing Jordanian role in the territory, it was one faint sign that King Hussein’s influence would continue to be felt over the Middle East’s most hotly disputed piece of land.

-MARCUS GEE with ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem