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Palestine: The New Arafat

Could Jordan’s King Abdullah be the key for a permanent Middle East peace settlement?

March 4, 2002

Could Jordan's King Abdullah be the key for a permanent Middle East peace settlement?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was an Arab leader with a history of making peace with Israel? Better yet, this leader would have a proven track record of leading Palestinians toward democracy. Lastly, this person would also have a strong relationship with the United States.

Does such a leader exist? Yes, he does. And he is remarkably close at hand.

It has been three years since King Abullah of Jordan assumed the throne left to him by his father, King Hussein. He is now making his own mark on global politics. For instance, the king has steered Jordan into a free trade pact with the United States. It’s a prestigious agreement shared by only three other nations — Canada, Mexico and Israel.

King Abdullah has also maintained the peace with Israel that was brokered by his father in 1994. Unlike Egypt’s “cold” peace with the Jewish state, Jordan has developed closer economic relations.

Together, Israel and Jordan have worked on joint development projects. The two nations’ shared U.S. free trade status only strengthens this budding economic relationship.

So far, so good. But is King Abdullah someone whom the United States could trust with brokering peace and administering Palestinian territory?

If the free trade agreement isn’t convincing enough evidence, Abdullah’s upbringing is another factor. The king’s stepmother, Queen Noor, is an Arab-American-Jordanian — and among the first female graduates of Princeton University.

King Abdullah himself attended secondary school in Massachusetts — and studied at both Oxford and Georgetown universities. He is more comfortable speaking English than he is classical Arabic. If you’re seeking a living example of the potential synergy between the United States and Arab nations, the King of Jordan is such a man.

But could King Abdullah’s ties with the West be a liability? After all, Mr.Arafat lost the respect of many hard-line Palestinians for talking peace with the United States and Israel.

Some Palestinians admire Mr. Arafat more for his former role as a warrior against Israel than as a peacemaker. Can Abdullah reach out to Palestinians when his country has already made peace with Israel?

Perhaps the right marriage might help. Like a growing majority of Jordanians, King Abdullah’s wife, Queen Rania, is a Palestinian-Jordanian. Some estimates place the number of Jordanians descended from Palestinian origins at 70% of the nation’s total population.

Jordan also has treated Palestine’s refugees better than any other Arab country — granting them full Jordanian citizenship. Other Arab countries have argued that granting Palestinian refugees full citizenship would undermine the principle of a “right to return” to Israel and other occupied territories.

As a result, many Palestinian refugees are forced to live in shantytowns — with terrible sanitation and little chance for employment. In Jordan, however, Palestinians can live and work as ordinary citizens.

King Abdullah has proven he can work with Israel and the United States. He’s also shown his skill in coping with a large Palestinian population.

But a major question remains: What can Abdullah do about Islamic extremist groups such as Hamas? After all, the violence perpetrated by these groups has helped fracture the peace process and undermine Mr. Arafat.

Democracy might be chief among Abdullah’s weapons in combating extremism. After all, it’s a tool that was used with great skill by his father in 1989, when Jordan elected its first parliament in 20 years.

King Hussein did not follow Egypt’s lead in banning Islamic political groups for that election. Instead, Jordan’s ruler allowed them to participate — and they won 28 of the 80 seats.

Jordan’s 1994 peace agreement with Israel weakened and fractured those parties. By 1997’s parliamentary election, Jordan’s Islamic parties had lost so much support that they boycotted the election — for fear of losing their political standing.

If King Abdullah includes Hamas in the development of a democratic Palestinian government, perhaps he can quell their popular support and divert their energies at the same time.

Is there a precedent for Jordanian rule of today’s Palestinian territories? Previous Middle East peace proposals have focused on a return to the territorial status which existed before the 1967 war between Arab nations and Israel. Control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, for instance, would revert back to Arab hands.

And which country controlled the West Bank prior to 1967? The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, or “Transjordan” — as it was known at the time.

Taking over for Yasser Arafat would be a tall order for King Abdullah. But it’s no tougher than handling a large Palestinian population in Jordan. Jordan’s administration of the Palestinian territories could even be deemed a “temporary” arrangement.

The stability to achieve peace and create an effective Palestinian government is the minimum requirement. Jordan could supply both — and the United States could foot the bill.

After all, peace is much easier to achieve between two fully functional states. Mr. Arafat must juggle domestic stability and peacemaking. With King Abdullah at the helm, Jordan can make the peace — and then make Palestine. These are two Herculean tasks that can’t be accomplished all at once.