11 -17 February 1999
Issue No. 416
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Book Fair Economy Opinion Culture Features Obituary Travel Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Pack of Cards Letters
Unresolved legaciesBy Graham Usher
The death of King Hussein was received with shock and some genuine grief among Palestinians on both sides of the Jordan River. But within the Palestinian leadership the more enduring response is likely to be one of apprehension over the unresolved political legacies King Hussein has bequeathed his young and largely untested heir, King Abdullah.
Not that such anxieties were expressed in official Palestinian reactions to the death. Having paid tribute to a leader whose loss will be "mourned by Jordan, the region and Palestinians", the Palestinian Authority was quick to express its "confidence" that King Abdullah would "continue the same policies as his father", including "support for an independent Palestinian state".
Confidence is not a trait often associated with the fraught history between the Hashemite Kingdom and Palestinian nationalism. Ever since he assumed control of the PLO in 1969, Yasser Arafat has engaged in a long tussle with King Hussein for the allegiance of Palestinians, both on the East Bank and in the Israeli occupied territories.
Arafat lost the former turf when the King first crushed (at the cost of some 5,000 Palestinian lives) and then expelled PLO guerrillas from his Kingdom following Black September in 1970. But the PLO believed it had won the second terrain when the King renounced all administrative claims to the West Bank at the height of the Intifada in 1988 and again when it signed the Oslo Accords with Israel in September 1993. The years since have proved such assessments to be premature.
Angered by Arafat's lack of coordination with him over Oslo, King Hussein responded by signing a full-fledged peace treaty with Israel in October 1994. The Wadi Arab agreement alarmed Palestinians because it gave Jordan a role not only in such regional matters as water and security, but it also demarcated Israel's borders with Jordan as the "West Bank" and granted the Hashemite throne a "special role" in Oslo's final status talks on Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees -- issues Arafat believed the PLO alone should negotiate.
Nor were Palestinian concerns assuaged by the hankering of certain Israeli leaders for a return to the "Jordan option" on the West Bank, even if the objective would now be realised in the context set by Oslo. This line is most associated with Israel's present foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Ariel Sharon.
Once the leading ideologue of the view that "Jordan is Palestine", Sharon now appears to embrace a formula no less inimical to the Palestinian Authority (PA) -- the idea that "Palestine is Jordan". This boils down to an acceptance that some form of truncated Palestinian state will inevitably emerge in the West Bank, but that Israel's preferred interlocutor over its powers and dimensions should be Jordan rather than the "mass murderer" Arafat, as Sharon calls him, or the PLO. In the last two years, Sharon has established close relations with both former Crown Prince Hassan and King Hussein. It is unclear what relations he has with King Abdullah. It is clear that Abdullah has already vowed to continue the "peaceful policies" of his father.
Arafat has striven to counter such a rapprochement by forging temporary alliances with King Hussein against the Likud government. It was a unity born of common interest. Both men were almost desperately committed to the Oslo process and alarmed by Binyamin Netanyahu's contempt for its terms. Thus the king stepped in to broker the Hebron agreement in January 1997 and threw his weight behind the Wye River negotiations in October 1998. Such interventions were useful to Arafat since they enabled him to confer a wider Arab legitimacy on agreements many Arab leaders privately viewed as disastrous. But they were also important for the king since they demonstrated to all (and especially the Americans) that Jordan was now an indispensable player in the Oslo process.
Yet the Hebron and Wye agreements were essentially tactical coalitions between Arafat and the king aimed primarily at keeping Oslo alive. Neither the PA nor Jordan have yet agreed on a common position in regard to a final settlement with Israel. Rather, both leaderships have preferred to wait and see what Palestinian entity will emerge before deciding the future relations between it and the Hashemite Kingdom.
It is a strategy that can only benefit Israel. This is especially so with perhaps the most incendiary of all King Hussein's unresolved legacies -- the eventual fate of the Palestinian refugees in the Diaspora.
Of Jordan's 4.2 million citizens, 65 per cent are of Palestinian descent and 1.5 million are registered Palestinian refugees. Israel and the US have long seen Jordan as providing a model solution to the refugee question, drawing up schemes in which the refugees are absorbed permanently by Jordan in return for extra cash and a Palestinian renunciation of the right to return.
King Hussein always maintained a deafening silence about such plans. Should his son be moved to voice some approval of them, he could not only awaken the sleeping giant of Palestinian nationalism in Jordan (not to speak of the million plus refugees in the Occupied Territories). He will set Jordan on a collision course with Syria and Lebanon, both of which have rejected resettlement "in the host countries" as a solution to the refugee issue. This is one minefield. American and Israeli-driven "bilateral" deals with Jordan on water, borders and security could provide others.