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King Abdullah is the Jordanian monarch. He sat down in New York on Wednesday, March 23,with Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent and columnist for Al Hayat and a Global Viewpoint contributing editor.

Raghida Dergham: Your Majesty, you did not attend the Arab Summit that ended in Algiers Wednesday. Was this a political boycott because of a political reason, or do you really think that these summits are not worth it anymore?

King Abdullah: No, the summits are worth it. I was encouraged that the issue of reforming the Arab League was very successful at the summit. I had other things on our plate and that's why I couldn't make it. I also felt that some issues could be moved forward at the foreign ministers level. Although there has been negative reporting about the outcome of the summit, it actually achieved a lot more —for example, at least the guidelines of how to address reform throughout the Middle East through the Arab League.

Again, there was clarification of the Beirut Declaration (a declaration in which the Arab states would agree to normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a return to the 1967 borders — ed.). When this initiative by (Saudi) Crown Prince Abdullah was first raised in 2002, it had no impact on the West and Israel. So the idea was to clarify the initiative once more for the public, but unfortunately it was misconstrued.

Dergham: It was apparently misconstrued because the understanding was that you wanted to amend the summit position on the Beirut Declaration (by proposing normalization with Israel before the return of land — ed.) at the same time Israel announced the expansion of settlements. Do you care to correct the record?

King Abdullah: The idea was not one of amendment, but to get the Arab countries to reach out again as part and parcel of the new peace initiative between (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon and (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud)Abbas. There is also a responsibility for the Arab countries and we felt that the 2002 Beirut Declaration was still a worthwhile document to be able to knock on the Israeli public doors and say, from the Arab point of view,"We are willing to take the responsibility as we dedicated ourselves to do in 2002."

I don't want to put any blame on anybody (for this confusion). I think that maybe the Jordanian participants at the summit got overexcited. But what I proposed was not an amendment. It was just to clarify again, as we are moving to this new peace initiative, the declaration of 2002 by Crown Prince Abdullah is still valid. That is what we are trying to show.

Dergham: Are you embarrassed that Israel decided to expand settlements while you were absent from the summit and seen as trying to court the Israelis?

King Abdullah: Well, we signed on to the road map and there is a process I think will be articulated or confirmed next month when Prime Minister Sharon meets with President (George W.) Bush. We want to make sure that the road map is the vehicle that will take us from where we are now to a solution that solves the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

On the settlement issue, President Bush articulated a vision of a viable, independent Palestinian state. Viability to me means geographically. So we need to address the process on the ground. Settlements do affect the process. My concern is that we may all be patting ourselves on the back a year or two from now saying that the road map process is going forward and suddenly we realize on the ground that we do not have a future for the Palestinians.

Dergham: What did you ask President Bush to do about the settlement expansion by the Israeli government?

King Abdullah: I reiterated to him my view that a viable independent state means geographic viability. The most important part is geographic viability and anything that puts that at risk could, at the end of the day, dismantle the whole process.

Dergham: What did President Bush promise you on that?

King Abdullah: Well, I wouldn't say he made a promise,but,as he had in previous meetings, he understood the issue of geographic viability. He has mentioned this on several occasions, including in the State of the Union address. He said contiguous Palestinian state instead of "geographic viability," but it is the same thing.

Dergham: You have managed recently to anger the neighbors who surround you. Is it your fault?

King Abdullah: Well, I would like to think that wasn't the case. When I spoke last December about the future of Iraq and Iran, I was speaking from a political perspective about the region, not a religious one. Also, I have been completely against a "Hashemite option" for Iraq from day one. The future of Iraq is to be decided by Iraqis and by nobody else.

So if I held the moral bar to myself,I expect other countries should do the same. And there were some elements at that point in Iran that were looking at getting involved inside of Iraq. And I felt we all should adhere to that principle (of not interfering inside Iraq — ed.), but it was turned around in a religious context that "Abdullah is taking a position against the Shiites." If you know "Aal Al Bayt" ("We Are All People of the House" — ed.) and the relationship with the Shiite, this is not true.

Dergham: Do you regret having used the term "the Shiite Crescent" to express your worries over Iraq and Iran?

King Abdullah: I regret it from the point of view that it allowed people to misinterpret what I said, yes.

Dergham: Would you like to take it back?

King Abdullah: Well, not take it back. I want to clarify that the issue of the Shiite Crescent was raised in a political context. I believe that the Shiites have the right to be a major element of what is going on inside of the Iraqi society. And the Shiites have done an amazing job at the elections that happened in January. Again they will be a major part of the fabric of the future Iraq. And I applaud them for that. But for the same reasons that I felt that Jordan should not get involved . . .that the Hashemites should not have a future role in Iraq, I feel that other people should do the same.

Dergham: Because you have said this also applies to Iran, some people on the streets in Iraq are saying,"Death to Jordan!," "Arabs out!" and words against you personally.

King Abdullah: They should not say "Arabs out" because they are Arabs themselves, unless the people who are saying this are not Arabs. There was an accusation that "Abdullah is Zarqawi." But if you know the issues that are between our government and Zarqawi, you know that this couldn't be farther from the truth. Jordan has the most secure border with Iraq. We have extended to the Iraqi government training of police and soldiers as well as government -- everything the Iraqi government has wanted from us. The policy I have had with Iraqi Prime Minister(Iyad)Allawi from day one has been, "You ask and we will deliver."

Dergham: So what happened?

King Abdullah: I was surprised of what was made this week over accusations toward Jordan that have no grounds. I question the motives and the timing behind these accusations. I still believe the relationship between Jordanians and Iraqis is strong. We all we need to be together at this time, and this is an unfortunate incident and I hope that we will move beyond.

Dergham: What are you going to do to move it away from deterioration?

King Abdullah: To the extent the issue is one of security along the Iraq-Jordan border, we are engaged in a constant effort with the Iraqi government to track down insurgents that are creating the problem -- Zarqawi in particular.

If you want to take a quote for the week, I think that if anything I have given Zarqawi an identity crisis. In Washington this week I saw a poster of half my face and half Zarqawi's! It was so ridiculous that I could not stop laughing. I actually tried to buy the poster as a souvenir.

So, anybody who understands the Middle East and understands Jordan and Iraq knows that there is no conceivable way that, having been a person who has fought extremist organizations, there could be anything between Jordan and Zarqawi.

Dergham: Another neighbor is Saudi Arabia, which got very angry over the perceived amendment of the Beirut Summit declaration. Have you received any word or heard that they got angry with you?

King Abdullah: I think there was an issue between them and our foreign minister that was resolved. Again, I think it was a complete misunderstanding.

When I was in Saudi Arabia three to four weeks ago, we all agreed on a strategy and an outline for the peace process. I am surprised again that for some reason he (the foreign minister) did not clarify the issue that created a negative reaction with our Saudi brothers.

Again, the amendment is not the policy at all. A set of circumstances were misconstrued and created tremendous confusion,which was unfortunate.

Dergham: You allegedly told a Jewish gathering in Washington that you told Sharon and Bush that should there be terrorism, don't point the fingers at the Palestinians -- insinuating that the finger should point to Hezbollah and Syria. What happened there?

King Abdullah: I was very gratified that the organization I talked to said that statement was completely unfounded. The only time that I have had discussions with Sharon was at Sharm El Sheikh. In that particular discussion we talked about how to support Mahmoud Abbas in dealing with the security situation.

I explained myself very clearly when I was asked a question at the speech to the Jewish organization about whether Abbas has "the will and the means" to create security. I said that the will of Mahmoud Abbas is 110 percent, but we all have to be insisting on the means.

In my discussion with Sharon, I said the same thing:We can't expect Mahmoud Abbas to change things overnight like the click of a light switch. He needs a full capacity. We need to help him with that. To the Jewish organizations I said that we need a consolidated effort from everybody to be able to build a capacity for Mahmoud Abbas so he can look Sharon in the eyes and say that he is a partner for peace.

Dergham: Are you worried that Hezbollah and/or Syria will launch attacks in order to disrupt the Palestinian efforts or the Syrian pullout from Lebanon? Will the Syrians not pull out so cleanly from Lebanon? What about U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon and the disarming of militias?

King Abdullah: No I don't think that will be the case. You have to understand that Hezbollahis part of the political fabric of Lebanon. That needs to be understood by all. Obviously when it comes to UNR 1559, I am from a position that you can't pick and choose resolutions the way we want. This was a call from the international community and, as Jordan has always done, we support all U.N. resolutions.

Dergham: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been saying that he has gotten assurances from President Bashar al-Assad that Syria is committed to presenting a timetable by early April for a full withdrawal of not only the army but also the intelligence from Lebanon. Do you have any reason to doubt that?

King Abdullah: Well, if President Bashar said that, then I would say he is a man of his word. He came to us in Jordan two to three weeks ago. Through his leadership we managed to solve a longstanding border dispute, where almost 130kilometers of Jordanian land was returned. He's made great efforts on the Jordanian-Syrian relationship,so there is no reason why he can't do that with Lebanon.

Dergham: Do you think that he is ready, willing and able to reform in a way that the times are demanding of him?

King Abdullah: In every discussion I have had with him,he wants to know what lessons Jordan has learned in our reforms. He has shown tremendous interest of how we have been able to achieve the changes socially and economically for the past couple of years. So from his interest and continuous follow-up, I believe that he does want his country to move forward. How he achieves that or how he wants to tackle that, it is something that I don't know.

Dergham: As two of the youngest leaders in the region, are you in constant touch with each other?

King Abdullah: We have been in touch quite often recently because of the bilateral issues of the border as well as the peace process. But, with Arab leaders, you can never be in touch with each other enough. We could be in touch with each other more often.

Dergham: Do you think what is happening on the streets of Lebanon is a good omen,or is it something that will lead to a terrible sectarian rivalry? Will it be something that inspires change in the rest of the Arab world, or is it going to be killed at birth?

King Abdullah: There is no doubt that Lebanon was dealt a very severe blow with the loss of (former) Prime Minister (Rafik) Hariri. This was a man who not only had the political intelligence and the capability of winning over the different fractions inside Lebanon,he was an old and a dear friend that stood by us in hard times. Lebanon has been set back by the loss of this man.

I hope that the Lebanese society can find another Hariri as soon as possible because that is what Lebanon needs. Lebanon is a wonderful country that has gone through such dismay. All of us would hate to see Lebanon step back into the turmoil that they just came out from.

The Arab countries and the international community need to do what they can to help the Lebanese society and hope to God that the setback of Hariri's death is not one that takes away from the light of an independent and capable Lebanon that is a tremendous plus to the rest of the Middle East.

(c) 2005, Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media ServiceS, INC. (Distributed 3/24/05)