Amman’s ambassador to Washington talks about the possibilities for Middle East peace
The embassy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a clean and modest bright stone box in northwest Washington that would hardly look out of place in one of the more fashionable neighborhoods in the Jordanian capital. With just one staffer at the door running bags through a metal detector, security here is nothing like the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Amman—or even the well-guarded Israeli embassy in Washington, just down the street.
I have come to meet with Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Jordan’s ambassador to Washington. The U.S.- and British-educated Prince Zeid, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins and a doctorate from Cambridge, is cut from similar cloth as his distant cousin, King Abdullah II. The model moderate Arab leader of a moderate Arab state, Abdullah is a regular star at international conferences like Davos, where the world’s ruling elite rubs elbows. Abdullah’s Hashemite ancestors have ruled Jordan since 1921, and while the country is one of the smallest Arab states and without the natural resources of its oil-rich Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf, it nonetheless has a habit of shaping history, often to U.S. advantage.
The late King Hussein brokered many key deals and contacts between the United States and other Arab countries—and also with Israel, with whom he signed a peace treaty in 1994. He was succeeded in 1999 by his now 48-year-old son, who follows in his father’s footsteps in influencing U.S. understanding of the Middle East. It was after his July 2008 meeting with King Abdullah II that the soon-to-be president Barack Obama articulated his belief that the peace process is the chief issue in the Middle East. Obama spoke with great respect about the Jordanian monarch, calling him “as savvy an analyst of the region and player in the region as there is.” Obama continued: “One of the points that he made, and I think a lot of people made, is that we’ve got to have an overarching strategy recognizing that all these issues are connected. If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The 46-year-old Prince Zeid, who attended that meeting between Obama and the king, is Jordan’s former representative to the United Nations and its current (non-resident) ambassador to Mexico, in addition to his post as U.S. envoy, which he has filled the last three and a half years, and so his range is considerably broader than for most within the Beltway. His demeanor, and the papers and books stacked on his desk, more suggest the habits of a prestigious academic than of a political operative. His credentials—his dissertation was on the diplomatic history of Jordan from 1956 to 1958—leave him well-connected not only in Washington social and diplomatic circles but also in intellectual ones. Friends from his graduate students days include Rob Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and former Bush National Security Council staffer Michael Doran.
“Jordan tends to send the best of the best from its Foreign Ministry to Washington,” says Ghaith al-Omari, advocacy director at the Washington-based American Task Force in Palestine. “They are very much invested in the U.S. relationship, and there is a very close connection between the embassy and Amman. It’s a very well-oiled and effective machine, and they expend energy in this town. They’re out there on the Hill, and dealing with Jewish groups, in a way that is unparalleled by most of the other Arab embassies.”
“In the Middle East we are so focused on our own issues,” says Prince Zeid. “Can you think of any signature initiative, either from the Arab government side or the Israeli government, that deals with some major global issue not directly connected to the Middle East? We’re not really full participants in these global discussions, so consumed are we by all of our issues in the Middle East, especially the Arab-Israeli crisis.”
“They are probably the Arab state most affected by developments on the ground in Palestine,” says Omari. “When things go badly there it affects Jordan very directly, with the possibility of it spilling over into Jordan.”
The Hashemites have found themselves in the middle of virtually every regional issue since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the advent of the modern Arab state system. Run out of the Hejaz region by Ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia, the Hashemites were rewarded for their loyalty to the British crown and participation in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans. The Sharif Hussein’s son Feisal was made king of Syria, until he was deposed. He then moved on to Iraq where his descendants ruled until 1958. His brother Abdullah was made king of what was then known as Transjordan. Prince Zeid is the grandson of Sharif Hussein’s youngest son, Zeid, and his father is the head of the royal houses of Iraq and Syria. If Iraq were still a monarchy, Prince Zeid would be next in line to throne.
Iraq is a tricky subject for Jordan today. Amman proved a very helpful U.S. ally during the lead-up to the invasion and the war itself, and it paid the price for its loyalty in November 2005, when three Amman hotels were bombed by members of Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization. As Iraq has turned from a Sunni-ruled dictatorship into a Shia-majority democracy, the prospect of a bordering state that may well fall under Iranian influence is of grave concern to Jordan. It was King Abdullah who first warned in December 2004 of a Shia crescent spreading from Iran that might well change the regional balance toward a political culture of resistance and threaten moderates like the Hashemites.
“When we speak of Iran’s nuclear file,” Prince Zeid tells me, “we want to see a diplomatic solution. We are not in favor of a military solution, the region can’t take the stress.” However, Obama’s failed attempts to engage with Iran are making Jordan’s position less comfortable by the day. “Look at the Middle East,” says the ambassador. “If you take Europe in the 1920s, a perceptive observer would have known it was in trouble, and it’s the same if you look at our region now.” The White House’s very public determination to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq has given the neighbors of this Arab state leeway to meddle in Baghdad’s divided politics. “Iraq has to be given room to breathe when it comes to forming a government,” Prince Zeid says diplomatically when I ask him about Iranian and Syrian interference in Iraq. “It needs oxygen and space. As for the future, much will depend on where the Iraqi government is, regarding its strengths, when U.S. troops leave. We hope Iraq will come out united and strong.”
But because Iraq is not at the top of the Obama Administration’s Middle East agenda, Jordan has accordingly re-fitted its own priorities. “With the war on terror, the Bush Administration gave Jordan prominence,” says Hassan Barari, a Jordan specialist who has spent the last year in Amman researching a book. “So, Jordan got something like $1.2 to $1.3 billion a year,” a figure dramatically reduced in the last two years. The world’s economic downturn, then, is taking a toll on Jordan, as is the fact that the resistance bloc—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas—is seen to be winning while the moderate Arab camp is losing. “In Jordan, the opposition, like the Islamic Action Front, says that we should align ourselves with the resistance camp,” says Barari. When Jordan’s economy is not prospering, King Abdullah II has a harder time making his case for the strategic relationship with the United States. “What can change the dynamic and give the moderate camp a boost,” says Barari, “is proper engagement on the peace process.”
Talk of the Shia crescent has been replaced with concern for progress on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. “It’s an element of timing,” says the ambassador. “Unless the proximity talks succeed and we graduate into direct peace negotiations soon, the chance will slip, and there will be little or no possibility for peace.”
In fact, this is a refrain that’s been coming out of the Hashemite court for more than half a century. While the Obama Administration may have been convinced by the Hashemite king that the current status quo—meaning the lack of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace—is not sustainable, there was nothing new about Abdullah’s remarks to Obama. In other words, peace is neither closer nor further than it was 50 years ago when the Jordanian monarchs first sounded the alarm.
Nonetheless, it is easy to see that the Palestinian issue is truly central to the survival of the Hashemite regime in Jordan, a country that was carved out of the Palestine Mandate in 1920 by the British. When Jordan annexed the West Bank in 1948, it added hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to the country’s original population. While there are no reliable figures, it is believed that a majority of Jordan’s residents are the descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars, even as the political power is in the hands of what Jordanians call the “East Bankers.” The Jordanian tribes, who staff the higher echelons of the security services and the military, are loyal to the Hashemites, which is largely what has allowed them to stay in power despite rounds of violence between the two communities. In 1951, King Abdullah was murdered by a Palestinian militant. His grandson (and Abdullah II’s father), the revered King Hussein, is believed to have escaped several assassination attempts, as well as the eruption of the 1970-1971 Jordanian-Palestinian civil war known as Black September, in which Yasser Arafat tried to topple the Hashemites and transform Jordan into a Palestinian state.
Given this violent history, it is hard to square Prince Zeid’s contention that the region is more dangerous today because of Islamic extremism. Indeed, as the ambassador remarked to me, it was the act of a Christian extremist, Michael Dennis Rohan, whose arson of the Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969 nearly set fire to the region. “Can you imagine if something like that happened today?” Prince Zeid asks. He walks me over to a picture on his wall of the old city of Jerusalem and shows how easy it would be for someone to create mayhem here that would spread throughout the region. “The center of gravity,” he says, “is Jerusalem.”
The city held dear by the three major monotheistic religions is a special concern for the Jordanians, who held the eastern part of Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967 and administered the holy places until the city was reunified under Israeli control in the aftermath of the June Six Day War. Nonetheless, it appears that Amman is content to have retaken control of the Muslim Waqf on the Temple Mount along with religious administration of the Haram al-Sharif mosque from the Palestinian Authority in 2004. The city of Jerusalem is Israel’s problem now, one that, from Amman’s perspective, they’re not handling very well. “Continued Israel settlement activity around East Jerusalem, unless checked, will take Jerusalem off the table of negotiations,” says Prince Zeid. “If Jerusalem is not on the table, then there is no peace, period.”
While the ambassador understands that successive Israeli governments have been building in Jerusalem even during the Oslo years, he is worried about religious extremists who seem to be driving the political debate in Israel. “It’s extraordinary to be here in Washington,” he explains, “where there are seminars on Hezbollah and Hamas on a weekly basis, but not once have I seen a seminar devoted to the activities of the settler movement. On the Arab side, we deal with our extremist issues and discuss it. But in Washington you do not seem able to discuss the activities of the Israeli settler movement. Why?”
The Israeli government doesn’t consider building in Jerusalem the same as construction in West Bank settlements, and neither did the U.S. government, until the Obama administration decided to make it an issue—one that neither the United States nor Jordan, nor even the Palestinian Authority, has expressed previously—that construction in Jerusalem is a barrier to negotiations.
“If the Israelis just want to take all of Jerusalem,” Prince Zeid answers, “such action will produce an acute crisis. No two-state solution will result. Israel then has to figure out how to deal with its demographic realities.” He adds, “specifically, if there’s no peace on the horizon. Israel will have to come to terms with its own demographic reality of ruling over some 5 million Arabs, whose numbers will only increase. Will it give all of them rights equal to those enjoyed by its Israeli citizens or not?”
What if there is a deal over Jerusalem? What if there’s peace? What happens if the Israel Defense Forces withdraw from the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority’s U.S.-trained security forces are incapable or unwilling to put down Hamas? Isn’t that a problem for Jordan? “No,” says the ambassador. “First of all, we place our faith in the Palestinian Authority, but whatever happens in the future, so long as East Jerusalem is occupied by Israel, it is Israel, and not Jordan, that will always be the prime target for Hamas or any other resistance movement.”
This is true, of course, at least as long as the Arab moderates can hold off the resistance bloc. However, an Iranian nuclear bomb may well change the equation, and in the worst-case scenario, in which Washington forfeits its regional position, the Hashemites will be caught between aligning themselves with the resistance camp or losing the throne. Regardless, in the meantime, Jordan no less than Israel has its own demographic issues with the Palestinians. Therefore, the Jordanians have as much invested in the project of a Palestinian state as Israel does.
The question then is, what does this mean for Amman? The Jordanians may find the prospect of taking authority over the West Bank unfeasible, but it is no more distasteful than Hamas on their border. A Palestinian state on the West Bank patrolled by security forces trained by the United States, and underwritten by Amman, would work fine for everyone—except for the sticky issue of Jerusalem. As Prince Zeid notes, Jerusalem is the center of gravity—which is why focusing on the city is a recipe for disaster. Worse yet for the Jordanians and the security of their regime is a Palestine born out of an American departure from the region and Israeli weakness.
When I lived upstairs from the Jewish Defense Organization, Hitler was a presence on the Lower East Side