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Jordan is Furious at Israeli Move to Block U.S. Missile Sale

Jordan is furious over Israel’s reported attempt to block a Jordanian-American missile deal, decrying the Jewish state’s efforts to “interfere” with the deal by lobbying members of the U.S. Congress. “Jordan does not need either the approval nor the blessing of a third country,” Mazen a-Tal, Jordan’s charge d’affaires in Israel, told JTA on Monday. “This is for our security. Israel is the last country to say anything, only two days after it had tested its own Arrow missile.”

He was referring to the successful test last week of Israel’s groundbreaking Arrow 2 missile-defense system off the California coast.

According to reports, Israel wants to halt the U.S. sale of AMRAAM air-to-air missiles to Jordan because it fears the deal ultimately could pave the way for the Americans to sell similar weapons to Egypt — or, alternatively, that

Jordan could turn them over to Egypt in a time of need.

Jordan and Egypt both have signe! d peace treaties with Israel. Egypt especially has resisted warming ties, and has used the annual U.S. aid it received for making peace to embark on a huge military build-up, when Israeli officials note that Egypt faces no real military threat.

“It is not healthy for such weapons to be so short a distance from Israel, and it is not clear why Jordan wants them,” an Israeli source was quoted as telling the Ha’aretz newspaper. “Clearly if Jordan was attacked we would do the work for them, so there is no justification to sell them the missiles.”

Israel also is examining various technical possibilities to make sure the missiles aren’t directed against it, or to obtain an understanding that they won’t reach Egyptian hands, Ha’aretz reported.

A-Tal’s comments echoed other sentiment coming out of Amman.

Asthma Khader, Jordan’s minister of state and a government spokesman, said Sunday that Israel’s intervention came “in response to Jordan’s influential diplomacy on the ! international scene . . . particularly Jordan’s strong opposition to I srael’s separation barrier in the West Bank.”

For the time being, the controversy has not evolved into a crisis. Rather, it remains yet another expression of the periodic differences the two countries have had in the 10 years since signing a peace treaty.

Indeed, relations between Israel and Jordan generally are friendly, and Israel regards the stability of the Hashemite monarchy as a security asset. It considers Jordan an essential buffer between Iraq and the West Bank, and between hard-line Syria and the Saudi oil fields.

“The principle that guides our relations is, ‘respect and suspect,’ ” Victor Nahmias, a former senior adviser in the Israeli Embassy in Amman, told JTA. “We have always been troubled with the scenario of a possible Islamic or Palestinian takeover of the regime.”

The construction of Israel’s West Bank fence has cast a shadow over Israeli-Jordanian relations. Marwan Mu’ashar, Jordan’s foreign minister, told Ha’aretz last week that the fence ro! ute endangers Jordan’s vital interests.

According to Mu’ashar, the fence would rule out any chance of establishing an independent Palestinian state, which is “a vital need for Jordan.”

In the absence of such a state, he said, residents of the West Bank would need to emigrate, and their sole option would be to go to Jordan.

Israeli officials say the fence takes in only a small portion of the West Bank, and say it will have no bearing on whether or not a Palestinian state is viable.

Tal said Jordan has “a strong interest in revitalizing the peace process.”

Still, the most difficult moments in Israeli-Jordanian relations were the failed attempt on the life of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in 1996 — after which Jordan demanded that Israel free Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from jail — as well as the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, when Jordan recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv.

In addition, relations passed a crucial test in 19! 97 when a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgi rls visiting Jordan, killing seven. King Hussein paid a condolence visit in which he apologized deeply to the girls’ families.

Salah Kalab, a former Jordanian information minister, wrote recently on an Arabic-language Web site that a PLO delegation visiting Damascus had suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan was simply a cover to allow the return of the West Bank to Jordan and of the Gaza Strip to Egypt.

Kalab ridiculed the proposition, insisting Jordan would not take back the West Bank under any circumstances.

Some 2 million of Jordan’s 3.5 million citizens are Palestinians, and Jordan fears it could one day become a de facto Palestinian state.

Since the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994, the Jordanian monarchy has had to maneuver carefully between its reliance on Israel as the behind-the-scenes guarantor of the Hashemite regime and its desire to maintain close ties with the Arab world, which frowns on friendl! y relations with the Jewish state.

Over the last several years, Islamists and ultra-nationalists in Jordan have waged a campaign against stronger ties with Israel, working through professional associations to ostracize those who encourage peace with Israel.

“The Jordanian government has recently closed down the engineers union because of its strong anti-Israel stand,” Nahmias said.

Ali Abu Soukar, secretary-general of the engineers union, was detained for a while after the union boycotted anyone cooperating with Israel.

In the meantime, Abu Soukar was elected to Parliament on the opposition Islamic Movement list. The party won 17 out of 84 seats in the Parliament.

Nahmias said King Abdullah II is planning to set up a party, to be led by former senior officers, that is likely to secure enough votes to ensure his majority in Parliament.

There also is a strong, if relatively unadvertised, security relationship between the two neighbors. Their intellige! nce services operate in close cooperation, including security patrols along their border.

When Palestinian terrorists opened fire on Israeli soldiers across the border in the Jordan Valley several days ago, Jordanian forces tracked them down immediately, killing three.

Economic ties are strong as well. Though Jordanian opponents of peace often say the treaty has failed to deliver any benefits, Jordan has made a huge profit from its Qualified Industrial Zone with Israel, another dividend of the peace agreement. Under the deal, if Jordan and Israel work together on products, these products enter the U.S. duty-free.

Thanks to the industrial zone, Jordan has increased its exports to the U.S. more than 10-fold. Annual Jordanian exports to the U.S. now stand at $400 million, compared to $40 million just five years ago.

This has relieved unemployment in the northern Irbid region, creating tens of thousands of new jobs.

Israeli high-tech companies employ several dozen Jordanian programmers who do their work in Jordan, away from th! e hostile crowds, and a number of Israeli manufacturing plants relocated to Jordan, providing jobs.

“Nothing can stand in the way of common interests,” Nahmias said.

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