BEHIND THE HEADLINES Hussein’s flip-flop on Israel prompted by ties to Jerusalem

JERUSALEM, March 17 (JTA) — For a tense few days, it seemed that Israeli-Jordanian relations had completely broken down. Jordan’s King Hussein, sharing Palestinian anger over Israel’s decision to start construction of a new Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa in eastern Jerusalem, last week wrote a sharply worded letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying that he had lost confidence in the Israeli leader’s commitment to peace. Netanyahu, on a trip to Moscow at the time, responded with leaks to his media entourage hinting at the existence of mental problems in the royal family — a reference to how Hussein’s father, Talal, had suffered from mental illness. The leaks, though later denied by Israel, were perceived in Jordan as a direct insult to the king. “King Hussein is perceived in Jordan as the father of the kingdom,” Alexander Bligh, head of Middle East Studies at Jezreel Valley College, said in an interview. “His subjects look up to him and often imitate him.” This may have provided the motivation for Jordanian soldier Ahmed Moussa, who shot and killed seven Israeli schoolgirls last week while they were on a field trip to an Israeli-Jordanian border site, Naharayim, called “The Island of Peace.” According to reports from Amman, the soldier simply could not accept any disrespect to his leader. The killing of the schoolgirls, in an odd twist of fate, helped restore Israeli-Jordanian relations. Hussein and Netanyahu, rather than proceeding on a collision course, embraced each other Sunday. With the Israeli premier at his side, Hussein made a series of emotional condolence visits to the bereaved families. Outwardly, Hussein appeared to have flip-flopped overnight. With Palestinians making up two-thirds of Jordan’s population, Hussein has long kept a wary eye on the aspirations of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. At the same time, with Netanyahu’s pledge to honor the king’s role as custodian over Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem — a role enshrined in the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty — Hussein supported Netanyahu’s election last year. In addition, he and Netanyahu do not support the creation of a Palestinian state, with each feeling that they would have a lot to lose from such a development. Hussein was hoping, along with the small majority of the Israeli electorate that voted for Netanyahu, that the premier would know how to steer forward the peace process without giving in too much to the Palestinians. But that was before Hussein knew of Israel’s determination to build at Har Homa, which touches on what is the most sensitive issue for the Arab world in its dealings with Israel — the future of Jerusalem. Whatever the extent of Hussein’s support for Netanyahu — or his reservations about Arafat — when it comes to Jerusalem, Hussein is squarely on the Arab side. This was what prompted his angry missive to Netanyahu. “The letter to Netanyahu was not an emotional act. It was the result of a calculated political reaction,” said Bligh. “Whereas Israel has no specific commitment toward the Palestinians regarding Jerusalem, Israel did commit itself to preserve the special status of the king as guardian of the holy Muslim places in Jerusalem. “Hussein mentions time and again his special obligation toward Jerusalem, as a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed.” Although Jordan relinquished its claims to the West Bank years ago, “it had never detached itself from Jerusalem,” he said. Jordanians who are close to the king insist that his letter to Netanyahu was not motivated by a fear of opposition from his subjects if he were perceived as siding with Israel regarding Har Homa. The letter, these observers say, was not meant to mollify the Islamic opposition within the Jordanian Parliament or the 3 million Palestinians living in Jordan. Nasser a-Din Nashashibi — a veteran Palestinian politician who has been close to the royal court from the days of Hussein’s grandfather, King Abdullah — said in an interview that the crisis of last week, as well as the reconciliation of this week, were both independent of internal considerations within Jordan. In both cases, he said, Hussein acted because he believed that this was the right way to behave, that this was what needed to be done to save the peace process. Mustafa Abu-Libdeh, the editor of the Jordanian economic daily Al-Aswak, wrote that Hussein’s dramatic visit to Israel on Sunday had a political as well as a human face. “Beginning with the afternoon hours, Hussein began the race to prevent an explosion between Israel and the Palestinians,” he wrote. “The king was offering Netanyahu a ladder to get off the high tree on which he had climbed in the Har Homa affair.” Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab who is an adviser to Arafat, not surprisingly played down the potential political benefits of Hussein’s trip to Israel. “One should not misunderstand the visit,” Tibi said in an interview. “It was a condolence visit, but the deep crisis with the Palestinian Authority, as well as with the Jordanians, still exists. “Hussein has not changed his very negative opinion over Israeli building plans in Jerusalem.” In fact, Hussein can no longer adopt an independent stand on Har Homa, according to Tibi, who said that Israeli-Jordanian relations are totally dependent on progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. “Relations between Israel and Jordan are like a thermometer. If [Israel’s] relations with the Palestinians are warm, temperatures will rise on that thermometer — and the same applies to Egypt.”

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