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Middle East: Jordan Reduces Role In Peace Process Under New King

Amman, 30 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The death of Jordan's King Hussein early this year may have marked an end to the days when Israel and the Palestinians could count upon Amman to be a driving force for peace between them.

King Hussein, who ruled his country for more than four decades, was intimately involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and often played a central role in it.

Under his reign, Jordan fought two wars with Israel, including the 1967 Six Day War which cost Amman control of the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The defeat also led to an influx of Palestinian refugees to Jordan who today compose about half of the its population.

In later years, King Hussein sought to be a regional peacemaker and in July 1994 -- just two months after the implementation of the Oslo accords, he brought Jordan to a peace treaty with Israel. The treaty made Jordan, after Egypt, only the second Arab country to ever make peace with the Jewish state and strained relations with many of Amman's neighbors.

But since taking the throne in February, King Abdullah, the son of King Hussein, has yet to visit Israel and has said little about the peace process. Instead he has gone on official tours to the Arab Gulf states and even to Syria, which long was bitterly at odds with his father over Jordan's separate peace with Israel.

Analysts say that this change in direction has two reasons. One is that Jordan feels it now has little more to gain from direct involvement in the peace process. The second is that it is looking to the Arab world to provide it new outlets for its labor force and exports to help rescue its badly suffering economy.

Hani Hourani, head of the independent New Jordan Research Center in Amman, told RFE/RL that the deadlock which has characterized much of the last five years of the Oslo accords has eroded most Jordanian's belief that the country's peace treaty with Israel outweighs its costs in ties with the other Arab states.

"Israel does not seem interested in giving real benefits from the peace even though we are paying a high price for the peace treaty with our Arab neighbors. We are not saying we are freezing the peace treaty but putting it in its proper perspective as part of our normal relations with other countries."

Hourani says that Jordan has no intention of trying to change its treaty with Israel, even though the two countries' peace has cooled markedly since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in 1996. Netanyahu's policy of taking a tougher line in negotiations with the Palestinians caused numerous clashes with King Hussein and the tension disrupted plans for greater economic cooperation between Israel and Jordan.

Correspondents say that one planned cooperative project, joint marketing of the two countries' Red Sea resorts of Eilat and Aqaba, has yet to go beyond an agreement to let planes going to one to land at the other, but only when there is an emergency.

Meanwhile, Jordan's economy has paid dearly for King Hussein's past readiness to break ranks with the Arab mainstream. After the 1967 war, Amman received substantial economic aid from the Gulf Arab states to help it absorb Palestinian refugees. The Gulf states also opened their oil industries to skilled professionals from Jordan -- many of them Palestinians -- who repatriated large parts of their earnings.

But during the Gulf crisis of 1990, King Hussein refused to join the international coalition which formed to evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The Gulf states punished him heavily by cutting off further financial aid and evicting the guest workers. The combined actions pushed Jordan's economy into a recession from which it has yet to recover.

Analysts say that King Abdullah and his ruling circle are now determined to improve relations with the Gulf Arab states. They say Amman does not hope to regain financial aid at a time when the Gulf states are suffering from a downturn in oil prices. But it does hope to again export its labor and goods to them.

At the same time, Jordan hopes to maintain its trading ties with Baghdad. Iraq is Jordan's primary source for fuel oil and a special exception to UN sanctions on Iraq permits it to continue buying oil from its neighbor. In return, Jordan exports many of the humanitarian good which Iraq is permitted to purchase under the UN oil-for-food program.

Hourani believes that the Gulf Arab states are now willing to strengthen ties with Jordan despite Amman's continued trading relationship with Iraq.

"The Gulf War problem of the Gulf states was a political problem, not a Gulf states' complaint over Jordan having an economic relation with Iraq. Their problem with Jordan was over a political refusal to join the coalition and nothing else."

As Jordan seeks to change focus from the peace process on its western border to its neighbors further east, one problem between it and Israel remains unresolved. And that problem seems certain one day to bring Jordan back into the center of any final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The issue is the fate of the Palestinian refugees now living in Jordan who hold Jordanian citizenship but still claim the right to return to the lands which now make up Israel.

Analysts say that officially, Jordan continues to support a permanent peace between Israelis and Palestinians which would result in a Palestinian state. But unofficially Amman recognizes that there is not enough space for all the refugees' now extended families to return to the West Bank and Gaza.

Hourani believes that if a peace treaty one day results in a Palestinian state, Jordan would give the refugees a choice. Those who wanted to leave Jordan could. And for those remaining, Amman would seek compensation, most likely from the international community.

(This is the last feature in a five part series evaluating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at the conclusion of the Oslo interim period on May 4.)