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Hussein Warns Palestinians Against Unreasonable Hopes

By Nora Boustany
The Washington Post

AMMAN, Jordan

Jordan's King Hussein, who has guided his desert nation through regional crises for four decades, expressed fears Thursday that the shimmering new prospect for Middle East peace may raise political hopes here too abruptly, bringing with it the danger of disillusionment.

As a measure of his concern, Hussein hinted in an interview that parliamentary elections planned for Nov. 8 could be postponed. The elections, which would be the second here since 1989, had been billed as a bellwether of democracy in the Middle East, but the fact that two-thirds of Jordan's 3.6 million people are Palestinians has obviously given Hussein and his government pause.

Speaking of this week's rapprochement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hussein said: "Jordan is worried about the possibility that this opportunity for the establishment of a just and durable peace may raise expectations too quickly and therefore bring with it the dangers of a psychological setback when it is realized how much (more) needs to be done." He avoided any direct reference to ominous forecasts that a Palestinian state could at some point seek to supplant Jordanian sovereignty.

The monarch insisted that his country's avowed march toward multi-party democracy would not be reversed, yet he signaled three times during the interview that plans for the fall elections were being rethought. In sum, he said, his government had not yet decided to shelve the ballot; "however, we have a new situation now that necessitates us thinking about it and examining it everywhere with the interest of maintaining democracy, yet at the same time maintaining cohesion in the country."

Mustapha Hamarneh, a leading scholar on electoral law in Jordan, argued in a separate interview that the elections "need to be postponed" in the wake of the PLO-Israeli accord-which many Palestinian leaders assume will lead to ultimate confederation with neighboring Jordan, if the Jordanians agree.

"We don't want Jordan to become the center of debate for that process -- for or against," Hamarneh said, reflecting widespread apprehension here that any intra-Palestinian discord over the Israeli-PLO agreement is bound to affect stability in Jordan.

"This is the only country in the Arab world where such a debate can take place. It will overshadow all other issues, and this is detrimental for the process of social change here," he said, adding: "How can you have a legislative body that has been chosen exclusively over one issue? These are extremely challenging times for Jordan. ... (PLO leader) Yasser Arafat did not pull a rabbit out of his hat, but a damned camel."

The Israeli-PLO accords envision eventual self-rule for the 1 million Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which was part of Jordan until it fell to Israeli troops during the 1967 Middle East war. Hussein renounced all claims to the territory five years ago, saying this would allow Palestinians there to pursue their ideal of a separate homeland. This action, however, also allowed Jordan to disengage from cumbersome administrative involvement with West Bank residents and exiles, and it limited West Bank representation in the Jordanian legislature.

Hussein has emphasized in several recent interviews that the time for confederation between Jordan and a Palestinian state had not yet come, pointing out that such an association could only be forged by full-fledged and independent states, still a distant prospect for the Palestinians.

Last Tuesday, Jordanian Prime Minister Abdel Salam Majali spelled out details of a Jordanian-Israeli agenda for further negotiations that was initialed in Washington by both sides that day.

The plan provides for a phased improvement in relations between the two countries that would open the way for "implementation" of measures on which both sides can agree in advance of a comprehensive peace treaty. Such areas of cooperation would include water and energy resources, environmental problems and, possibly, installation of direct telephone links, Majali said.

The most contentious issue in the talks concerns the return of Palestinian refugees who fled the West Bank to Jordan during the 1967 war and afterward. Failing their repatriation, Jordan is insisting on some form of compensation by Israel, in accordance with international law.

Psychological impediments separating Arabs and Israelis would fall if practical solutions materialize, the monarch said. "Barriers would come down if a context of peace and opportunities that were never there would present themselves."