Violence in Middle East Could Ignite Region
King Abdullah II, Jordan's new monarch, is an advocate
of women's rights, democratic reforms, press freedoms and membership in
the World Trade Organization. He's also a qualified frogman, a Cobra helicopter
attack pilot and a free-fall parachutist. With strong American connections-he
attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts as a teenager, Georgetown
University's School of Foreign Service and took advanced military training
at Fort Knox-he served as commander of Jordan's elite special forces.
King Abdullah was interviewed for NPQ's weekly column, Global Viewpoint,
by Robin Wright, chief diplomatic correspondent of the Los Angeles Times.
NPQ | Fewer than three months ago, peace
between Palestinians and Israelis appeared so close. Now, the violence
is the worst in a decade. What are the prospects for peace talks to resume?
KING ABDULLAH | At this stage, we're not talking peace talks or
peace process. We're trying to find a mechanism to de-escalate the violence-which
means (talks) at a very low level, unfortunately-getting the security
apparatuses of both countries to sit down and find a mechanism to start
bringing the violence down.
NPQ | Egyptian and Turkish leaders have recently come through Washington
to plead with the new administration to get more directly involved. What
is your message to President George W. Bush?
ABDULLAH | The American position, with this administration, has been
to stand back, not disassociate itself from the Middle East, but basically
say that when you are serious enough and you show us there is something
we can work with, we'll be back to talk to you.
I'm sympathetic, and I understand the American position, but if we leave
(Palestinians and Israelis) by themselves and they don't sit down, the
violence will only escalate. Terrorism is on the rise, and what we see
in the territories is just the start of things to come if there's no dialogue.
So it is imperative for all of us, in one way or another, to prod and
encourage both partners to sit down.
NPQ | There's a feeling in the United States that Yasser Arafat is
either unwilling or unable to make peace because he walked away from a
deal that gave him more than 90 percent of the land he sought. Is he prepared
to make peace? And how much control does he really have?
ABDULLAH | Other countries make statements that he has no control.
I don't think that's fair. He does have control in the territories. He
is impeded by the situation that he's in. In other words, if he needs
to assert himself, he's going to have to have something in his hand to
give to his people, to say I want you to do this because I've been given
Obviously, from the start of the intifada till today, there has been a
decline in his control, but he is to the Palestinian people still the
symbol of the future Palestinian state.
NPQ | What are the dangers of a surge in radicalism or Islamic militancy
if the violence continues?
ABDULLAH | There's a tremendous danger of extremism and radicalism
on both sides. Not only do you have the intifada and the loss of life
on the streets-on both sides-but the Palestinians also have tremendous
economic hardship. If you have neighbors sitting next to each other, one
has everything and one has nothing, then you're going to have an atmosphere
of conflict. People feel their lives are not going anywhere, so they'll
put a bomb on their back and walk into a building or a bus stop and kill
The most striking incident that really worried me was when a Palestinian
bus driver with no affiliation to a terrorist organization, not an extremist
by any account, had breakfast with his wife and children, got into his
bus and was driving around, saw some Israelis at a checkpoint, lost his
senses and ran over the Israelis. Here's somebody who's so frustrated,
he's willing to do an irrational act like that. That is why the de-escalation
of violence as quickly as possible is paramount. Otherwise, we're going
to have many more incidents like that.
NPQ | Will it spill over into the region?
ABDULLAH | If the cycle of violence moves to another level, and if
both sides really lose common sense and there is a loss of life on a massive
scale, you're going to get tremendous rumbling in the Arab streets (for)
some sort of action. Both parties realize that's a kind of Pandora's box
at this moment. It could ignite the whole area. Yes. There is that danger.
NPQ | Ten years after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, is the
Iraqi leader still a threat to the region?
ABDULLAH | At the Arab summit (in March in Jordan), there was an atmosphere
of reconciliation and an attempt by Arab countries to end 10 years of
animosity. Fifteen Arab delegates representing their leaders, with the
blessing of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, sat down with the Iraqis and said,
"Look, let's put the past behind us. We have a very far-reaching
proposal for reconciliation." The Iraqis did not agree to the proposal,
and they lost a golden opportunity. The summit, to an extent, was successful
because nobody screamed at each other and nobody walked out, but there's
still a long way to go. Unfortunately, because we didn't achieve a resolution,
we're back at the drawing board.
We all understand that the problem in Iraq is relieving the sanctions
on the people of Iraq. But there is still a tremendous concern in a lot
of countries about a weapons-of-mass-destruction program. The Iraqis mentioned
at the summit that that is not their program. They're willing to comply
with the United Nations, but, basically, they're saying that there should
be a reasonable approach to limitations on weapons of mass destruction.
They seem to be willing to say that we're willing to do it if others in
the region are willing to do it, too.
NPQ | The US is redesigning its policy to streamline economic sanctions,
retaining an arms embargo and UN control of Iraq's oil income. Will it
ABDULLAH | (Secretary of State) Colin
Powell has a very realistic approach. The only way it will work, and the
American administration understands this very well, is if everybody complies.
The only three countries that have complied fully since the end of the
Gulf War are Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I can't say the same for
other neighbors and Arab countries. If countries don't comply, you have
to hold them accountable, and you have to make sure that you have the
willingness in the international community and in the American administration
to say, "OK, this is the policy and we won't tolerate anybody breaking
NPQ | All Iraq's neighbors have bought oil from Iraq-in Jordan's case,
with the acknowledgment of the outside world. Do you really believe this
is sustainable and that no one, particularly a country like Iran, is going
to cheat and make it impossible for others?
ABDULLAH | (It) would be a bit more difficult to create a mechanism
where you can make sure that Iran is complying, simply because the relationship
between Iran and the West is not as good as it should be. But where America
and the West will have tremendous influence, in many ways, will be with
Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. But if you closed everybody
else off, and there is monitoring in the Gulf, you can make it more difficult
NPQ | You could argue that, 10 years later, Hussein has basically
won. He held out the longest, and the other side blinked and stepped away
from economic sanctions. Did he win? Is he stronger today?
ABDULLAH | I don't think the game is over,
but he is in a very strong position at the moment, yes. No doubt about
it. As a result, there is a feeling among those in the region, and, to
some extent, in the international community, that there has been so much
confusion on sanctions, that countries were not really coming together
to make (them) work, that allowed countries to start sanctions-busting,
because they felt there wasn't a solid stand by the international community
to enforce (the sanctions).
NPQ | Is there any opposition group outside Iraq capable of putting
enough pressure on the regime to change its behavior or, as the US hopes,
to end the regime of Hussein?
ABDULLAH | The opposition, I presume, does have its benefits, but
it will not by any chance be able to bring about change internally in
Iraq. It does provide a function, and I understand the Americans feel
(it's a positive) to have an opposition group. But will it affect the
internal situation in Iraq? No. It never will.
NPQ | So you think Hussein is around for the indefinite future?
ABDULLAH | I believe so.
NPQ | How dependent is Jordan on Iraq?
ABDULLAH | This is the unusual position we're in. Our industries were
geared during the 1980s to support Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war. Our
industries have suffered since 1990 because of the sanctions. We have
been trying, since 1994, to have more liberal trade with the West Bank.
Israel, on average, has had a trade of about $2.4 billion (with the West
Bank). At maximum capacity, our industry could only take maybe 8 percent
or 10 percent of that market.
But trade with Israel has been worse since we signed peace with Israel.
Our trade with Israel (through) the West Bank is down to one-third of
what it was before we signed the peace treaty in 1994. It would be in
Israel's best interest to wean Jordanian industries off Iraq, let's say,
and wean them onto Israel, so that they're not forced toward the Iraqi
market. But, unfortunately, there are commercial interest groups in Israel
that don't want us to be able to trade, which is ironic, because we're
talking about free and open economies, the freeness of Israeli trade going
out toward the east with Jordan. But there are limitations going the other
So when people in the streets say peace with Israel, we don't see the
dividend. We're talking to our Israeli partners and saying they do have
a point. It's mind boggling for me that we haven't been able to solve
NPQ | Your father, King Hussein, was instrumental in introducing democracy
to Jordan, beginning in the late 1980s with parliamentary elections. What
do you plan to do to further democratization?
ABDULLAH | In the next 10 years, we will see a dramatic, positive
transformation in our democracy. There is criticism that I've concentrated
on the economy, and that politics take second place. If you can concentrate
on the economy, make life better for people, improve the standard of living,
you're actually, in the long run, accelerating the process of political
If we have a devastated economy, high unemployment, tremendous poverty,
we are not going to have political reform. Small organized extremist groups
are going to call for political reform, but, in the long run, they're
going to just take us back many, many steps.
NPQ | Your father was considered one of the great leaders in the region.
How do you plan put your stamp on Jordan?
ABDULLAH | Times have changed. In the new age, economic position takes
precedence over the political one. And the future of the world and our
region is economic integration. Politics helps countries but doesn't really
bring them together. The economy does. Dependence on each other, having
to trade with each other, getting to know each other better, that is the
future of the Middle East and the future of Israel and the region.
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