News Analysis: Israelis React with Caution to Jordan’s Decision on New Heir

Israeli officials are reacting cautiously to Jordanian King Hussein’s decision to name a new successor.

Hussein’s eldest son Abdullah — who now replaces the King’s brother, Crown Prince Hassan, as heir to the Hashemite throne — is largely an unknown entity, particularly with regard to Israeli-Jordanian relations.

Reserve Col. Shalom Harari, a former Arab affairs adviser at the Israeli Defense Ministry, said the 36-year-old Abdullah has little knowledge of political or economic issues.

Harari was not alone in his assessment. Abdullah, a career soldier who leads Jordan’s elite Special Forces, was described this week by close associates as having little ambition outside the military.

This lack of political experience has Israeli officials closely watching the Jordanian court, Harari added, pointing out that when one of the pillars of Jordanian stability is changed, there may be cause for concern.

A more optimistic view emerged from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, David Bar-Illan.

While wishing the ailing king “health and longevity,” Bar-Illan said in an interview with JTA that when the day comes for Abdullah to assume the reins of power, “We are sure that he will adopt the same policy of his father of bringing peace and security to the region’s peoples.”

Many Israeli sources refrained from commenting on the situation in Amman – - particularly after warnings were sounded in Jordan against Israeli interference in Jordan’s internal affairs.

But speaking off the record, several sources said that they were not concerned by the royal reshuffling and that Abdullah would continue his father’s policies.

Coming just days after the 63-year-old Hussein returned home from six months of cancer treatment in the United States, the decision to replace Hassan as his heir was a political stunner.

Indeed, Middle East expert Ehud Ya’ari described the move as little short of a “monarchical coup d’etat.”

The decision was conveyed in a royal decree issued Monday in which the king “agreed to relieve Prince Hassan of the position he has held for the past 34 years.”

Hussein has long been seen as Israel’s closest ally in the Arab world — a view confirmed after Israel and Jordan signed their historic peace treaty in October 1994.

Hussein was crowned king at the age of 17 in May 1953. He subsequently carried on the pro-Western policies of his grandfather, King Abdullah, who was assassinated in 1951 after trying to make peace with Israel.

The demographic makeup of Jordan changed after the 1967 Six-Day War, when the kingdom was flooded with Palestinian refugees. Some 3 million of Jordan’s current population of 4.4 million are Palestinians.

Abdullah, 37, is the son of Hussein’s second wife, Queen Mona.

Married to a Palestinian woman, Abdullah is seen by some sources in Jerusalem as better positioned to maintain a good relationship with Jordan’s Palestinian majority.

But some in the Jewish world were saddened by the decision to bypass Hassan, who for decades was designated Hussein’s successor.

While lacking the charisma of the king, Hassan, 52, is a familiar figure among Jewish audiences, who viewed him as likely to carry on his brother’s policies toward Israel.

Hassan has many friends in the Jewish state, Professor Shimon Shamir, Israel’s former ambassador to Jordan, said this week.

“Hassan had built through the years an extensive network of contacts with Israeli economists, politicians and intellectuals,” he said. “They have learned to appreciate his personality and are certainly sorry to see a decrease in his status.”

Hussein has attempted to make it clear that he had no desire to slight his brother.

“God knows I love him as I love all my children,” Hussein told CNN.

Sources in Amman predicted this week that Hassan could be named a deputy to the king, a new post with limited authority.

For years, the king and his brother had worked closely, with nothing in their behavior betraying any strains. When Hussein left for the United States six months ago, he entrusted Hassan with control over Jordan’s affairs.

But according to reports in Jerusalem, problems developed when Hassan behaved as if Hussein was not coming back.

Shortly after Hussein left for the United States, Hassan spoke publicly of the need to eradicate corruption. Jordanians loyal to the king wondered whether the comment was meant to imply that Hussein had condoned corruption.

In a sign that relations between the two were cooling, Hassan did not visit his brother’s bedside during the months Hussein spent at the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic.

In addition, Hussein had expressed concerned that as king, Hassan would pass on the line of succession to his own sons, not the king’s.

With his own mortality evidently in mind, Hussein moved quickly to dispel growing speculation about the line of succession.

“Hussein’s children and wife played a crucial role” in Hussein’s decision this week, said Ya’ari.

Queen Noor had wanted her eldest son, Hamza, 19, to be appointed crown prince. Indeed, palace officials said Hussein was grooming Hamza for the position. Hamza was the only of Hussein’s five sons to be at the monarch’s bedside during the past six months.

But analysts say that Hussein ultimately decided that Jordan is facing too many problems — an economic crisis, an internal struggle for more democracy, tension with Iraq and Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — to allow the throne to pass to a young, inexperienced leader.

“One of the main issues on the national agenda is the Hashemite concern about a Palestinian state,” said Ya’ari. “Hussein is well aware of the fact that once a Palestinian state becomes a political reality, it will have a major affect on Jordan.

“Only a solid grip on the armed forces, ensuring their continued loyalty, will prevent turning the country into a de facto Palestinian state.”

With his senior position in the Jordanian army, the mainstay of support for the Jordanian monarchy, Abdullah is believed capable of ensuring a smooth transition of power.

This is the second time that Abdullah was named crown prince. The previous time he was only 3 years old.

But Hussein, who was at the time ruling over a shaky monarchy and was the target of several assassination attempts, wanted an older successor if, like his grandfather, he were to be murdered.

The constitution, which stipulated that the reigning monarch’s eldest son inherit the throne, was amended so that Hassan could be named crown prince.

“Abdullah is certainly fit for the job, no less than his father,” said Nasseradin Nashashibi of Jerusalem, a close associate of the royal family, “He is sharp, intelligent — and just as flamboyant as his father.”

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