Last September President Reagan called for “self-government by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan.” He did not refer to the PLO except to acknowledge its forced “evacuation” of Beirut. For a while Reagan’s proposals seemed to be having some success, notwithstanding Prime Minister Begin’s immediate rejection of them. After King Hussein visited Washington in December, he made it clear that he was interested in Reagan’s plan, if it could be subject to “Arab agreement and coordination.” He asked for support from the PLO, and met several times with Yasir Arafat in Amman. State Department officials hinted during the early part of January that the king would enter the “peace process” by March 1. Hussein himself seemed to accept the deadline: after it, he said in a speech in Amman, “US leaders have other things to preoccupy them,” an obvious reference to presidential politics. A White House official told me then that he hoped the king would make a bold, dramatic announcement recognizing Israel according to the provisions of UN Resolution 242 and offering to negotiate the future of the West Bank and Gaza directly with Israeli officials.
But later in the winter prospects for this seemed to grow dimmer. Israel would not withdraw its forces from Lebanon until the Lebanese government agreed to “normalize” relations; which Amin Gemayel refused to do. In February, at its meeting in Algiers, the Palestine National Council conceded only that the PLO might consider some federal arrangement with Jordan—after the Palestinians have established an independent state. This was hardly the endorsement Hussein had been waiting for. The PNC also said that Arafat could continue meeting with Hussein, and as I write, at the end of March, Arafat is expected in Amman for what has been described as a “final round of talks.” These are supposed to decide whether the PLO will, at least for now, endorse Jordan’s plan for Palestinian representation in possible talks with Israel: that Palestinian leaders who have been close to the PLO, but not members of it, would form part of a Jordanian delegation. If Arafat says yes, the way would be open for Hussein to pursue the Reagan plan. If he says no, or continues to procrastinate, is the plan “stillborn”?1
My own recent visits to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and Washington—including an interview with Crown Prince Hassan, the king’s younger brother and confidant—have made me doubt that peace can come except through the administration’s proposals, whatever Arafat may do. Hussein and the PLO have obviously disagreed over who should control any negotiations. Hasn’t this betrayed a much deeper disagreement over the kind of settlement such negotiations would produce, a disagreement obscured by each side’s talk about “federation”? If so, can Jordan take the initiative from the PLO on the West Bank and Gaza and contain Palestinian nationalism within some new arrangement of its own? Does Hussein now have stronger reasons than ever to try? The answers I found to these questions suggest that Hussein now holds the Arab key to peace, and knows it.
This has taken a long time to come about. From the 1974 Rabat conference, at which the PLO gained the right to represent Palestinians in the Arab League, until last summer’s war in Lebanon, the PLO’s claim to be waging “armed struggle” from the north against Israel both provided the impetus for West Bank nationalism and diminished the prestige of the former Jordanian administration in the occupied territories.2 Jordan continued to pay the salaries of teachers and civil servants. But the memories of “Black September” 1970, when thousands of Palestinians were killed by Jordanian troops and hundreds of thousands were sent into exile to southern Lebanon, have remained strong.
Before the Rabat conference, during the summer of 1974, King Hussein conducted fruitless secret negotiations with Prime Minister Rabin. He got no concessions regarding Jerusalem. After the Rabat conference, some members of the Hashemite court—notably Crown Prince Hassan—argued that it was time for the king to cut his losses. Palestinians already comprised the majority of Jordan’s population on the East Bank. Two hundred thousand remained in refugee camps. Had not the PLO threatened his regime in 1970? Was it not time, as an American diplomat in Amman put it to me recently, to “steer clear of the jugernaut across the river”?
By then Hussein needed little persuading, though staying apart from the West Bank was, from all accounts, painful to him. He took hard the loss during the 1967 war of the territory that his grandfather Abdullah had won in 1948. The great-grandson of Emir Hussein of Mecca, T.E. Lawrence’s original champion of the “Arab nation,” the king yearned to regain Arab rights in Jerusalem. But Hussein was disgraced at Rabat in 1974 and he knew a threat when he saw one. He had been with Abdullah when a Palestinian extremist killed him on the steps of the Mosque of Omar in 1951. Later, in 1957, after he had forced Abdullah’s mentor Sir John Glubb (Glubb Pasha) from the country, he allowed the free election of Suleiman Nabulsi—a Palestinian from a leading Nablus family—as prime minister. Soon after, when some young officers attempted a coup, he met with them and forced them down. Caution regarding the Palestinians had long been necessary for Hussein’s survival. His brother’s advice made sense. The Hashemites would prevail only by emphasizing their willingness to cooperate with the surrounding Arab nations; they would have to follow the consensus of the Arab League.
Hussein drew closer to the Saudis, blood enemies since Ibn Saud threw Hussein’s family out of the Hejaz in 1925. He even moved to coordinate military command with the Syrians, though President Hafez Assad had sent tanks to help the PLO bring Hussein down in 1970. (Those tanks did not turn back until the Israeli government, at American urging, threatened to send its own aircraft against them.) When President Sadat traveled to Jerusalem, King Hussein joined with other Arab League nations in Baghdad to oppose him.
Hussein’s accommodation to the consensus favoring the PLO paid off. “His neighbors had oil and he had a natural resource that was nearly as good,” a former American diplomat to Jordan put it to me. “This was his long border with Israel.” The Saudis and Iraqis supported him with enormous grants in aid, amounting to over $1.1 billion in 1982; and at the beginning of its war with Iran, Iraq’s contribution was more impressive still. Most of this money has gone into supporting Hussein’s military. But even larger sums have been accumulated by as many as 400,000 educated Jordanian citizens who now work in the Gulf states as technicians, engineers, accountants, clerks, and contractors. Their remittances in recent years have helped to finance the prosperity that both Palestinian and Jordanian families have shared.
The boom has certainly lessened tensions in Amman itself, which has grown from a city of 250,000 people in the Sixties to more than a million today. There is a saying among Palestinians in Amman: “The king has made a social contract: he rules, we make money.” Prince Hassan, who has much to do with economic planning, made the same point less bluntly: “The politics of economic legitimacy”—i.e., of open economic opportunity for all, including the Palestinians—“has fostered Jordan’s existence,” he told me. He would like to move beyond this, but nobody close to the Hashemites is quite sure how to do so.
Between 1978 and 1981, the Jordanian GNP doubled, from $2.6 billion to $4.9 billion. But Jordan’s economy is a commercial bubble dependent on foreign politics. Only 10 percent of the national income is earned in manufacturing; only one third is agricultural income which, proportionately, is declining. The country has some tourism—the ruins at Jerash and Petra are among the wonders of the world—but Jordan exports nothing but a little potash and a great many people. The potash works will be swamped with water if Israel goes ahead with its Mediterranean-Dead Sea canal. More important, Amman will be swamped with unemployed people if the Gulf states decide to retaliate against Hussein.
The Israeli Labor Party officials who, before the Lebanon war, predicted that Hussein would be willing to negotiate a “territorial compromise” with a Labor government ignored this fundamental difficulty. They justifiably contended that Israel could not expect to demilitarize the West Bank and Gaza if there was to be an independent and hostile Palestinian state there; but they did not make it easier on Hussein by persisting in denying any Jordanian rights in Jerusalem. The king in any case could never have dared to act like Sadat. “Egypt,” Sadat said, “is the Arab world.” Hussein could only envy his confidence. Jordan’s economy, whose prosperity is necessary to domestic peace, is “raw human material which has to be attached to larger economic engines,” as one American diplomat put it to me. As oil revenues have declined, Hussein’s Arab brothers have not needed much provocation to cut him off. Could American aid or large deals with Israel underwrite Hussein if he broke ranks?
But there is more at stake here than money. Jordan’s prosperity during its continuing “state of war” has produced a growing urban middle class in which once sharp national differences between “Palestinians” and “Jordanians” have been blunted. Those differences are nothing like the deeper contrasts between, say, Russians and Poles: Jordanians and Palestinians speak the same Arabic, are likely to be Sunni Muslims (95 percent of Jordan is Sunni Muslim), and both show to some degree the influence of British colonialism.
Nevertheless, Jordan has been a country where families prize their origins. The Hashemite monarch, his extended family, his tribal connections, and his top army officers are mostly descended from Bedouin stock. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are descended from the settled people on both sides of the Jordan. Many educated Palestinians never quite grasped the point of having a Hashemite king of Transjordan in the first place. Abdullah was, after all, set up in Transjordan by Winston Churchill, the colonial secretary, in 1921 as compensation for his brother Feisal’s loss of the Iraqi throne. Feisal claimed that throne by traditional right after the French threw him out of Syria. Educated Palestinians, moreover, had never considered Amman to be much more than a watering station between Jerusalem and Damascus.
Still, this odd country has shown a remarkable ability to survive. Palestinians lived under Hashemite rule and English protection until the 1948 war. Hundreds of thousands crossed over into Jordan after 1948, when Abdullah annexed the West Bank, and more than 300,000 have come since the 1967 war. Today there are well over 1,250,000 Palestinians on the East Bank and a good many of them are among the Jordanian citizens working in the Gulf. Thousands of Palestinians hold important positions in the Jordanian civil service. The minister of information, Adnan Abu Odeh—often described as one of the most influential men in Jordan—is a Palestinian. It is true that those who recently arrived from the West Bank are likely to resent Hussein, not only because of his high-handed ways before 1967, but because he exploited their region to build up the East Bank. Between 1952 and 1962, while Amman was doubling its population, that of Arab Jerusalem held steady at 60,000. Few forget Black September. One still sees the Palestinian black and white kaffiyeh—or headdress—proudly worn in Amman, contrasting with the red and white Jordanian one. Still, fewer and fewer heads of households wear the kaffiyeh at all.
One Palestinian with whom I spoke, Dr. Carlos Diemas, a physician from Beit Jallah who now runs a hospital in Amman, seemed typical of the new era: “Our differences with Israel—and with each other—will slowly dissolve. This is the most opportune time in our history for a healing peace.” Dr. Diemas is also a member of the king’s appointed National Consultative Council that has been set up to replace the elected lower house, the Council of Deputies, which has been suspended since 1974. But about 70,000 Palestinian refugees still live in camps in and around Amman, some in the shadow of the symbols of Jordan’s progress: the airport,- and the huge satellite dish receiver that feeds Jordanian television.
Social advances can themselves create frictions, since the economic boom has created the kind of commerical opportunities that make traditional family connections all the more valuable. One remembers one’s relatives when deals are made; Jordanian Abu Jaabers remember Abu Jaabers, Palestinian Zorbis remember Zorbis. (There are also closed circles of Orthodox Christians and Circassians.) An economic crisis would certainly confirm hundreds of thousands in what an American official calls the “theology of Palestinism.”
Nevertheless, the question of identity is more fluid than national labels suggest. “Some Palestinians deny this,” Prince Hassan told me, “but the trend toward ‘similitude’ is strong among Palestinians and Jordanians both.” Of course this trend is also a matter of who is perceived to be winning. A Palestinian professor in Amman put it this way: “If the king gets Jerusalem we are all with him. If he gets less, Arafat claims the right to be the Palestinian leader he got at Rabat. If he gets nothing we raise hell.” But the crown prince seems essentially right. It is impossible to look back on the West Bank from the East, to think of the ties between them, and to imagine a Palestinian “entity” that is both at peace and separate from Jordan—or what Jordan can become.
I do not mean by this Ariel Sharon’s macho fantasy of toppling the Jordanian regime in favor of some Palestinian junta and then, little by little, driving the people on the West Bank across the river. Jordan cannot be confused with Palestine in this way. Loose arguments in pro-Begin advertisements and polemics that “Jordan is Palestine,” and that Jordan’s territory is actually “77 percent” of the original mandate Palestine, neglect to add that less than 5 percent of that 77 percent is not desert.3 The heart of the Palestinians’ homeland is now the Jordan Valley, bounded by Jerusalem in the west and Amman in the east. (What would Israelis say if Palestinians offered peace on condition that all Jews move to Beersheba and the Negev, “70 percent of Israel”?) But there are over a million people on the East Bank who consider themselves Jordanians.
Prince Hassan said he hoped that the Jordan Valley could be turned into a pilot project of cooperation and industrial development between the two populations on both sides of the river: “Israel could certainly participate.” With the prince’s backing, Rami Khouri, a Palestinian editor of The Jordan Times, made a study of the possibilities for Jordan Valley development. Khouri estimates that from one large dam project alone, Jordan could gain about $90 million in annual benefits from irrigation networks, another $20 million in municipal water supply, and about $3 million in electrical power.4 But Khouri told me that he mainly wants gains for national unity. “Palestinians and Jordanians are already closely meshed in geography and demography. The point is to create one constituency.”
These hopes are betrayed—if nothing else—by the map included in Khouri’s book that shows the entire area west of the Jordan as “Occupied Palestine.” Still, more such studies are needed. Economic cooperation is one of the most serious approaches to the conflict between Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. And Israelis do no better than Khouri’s map when they plan a canal connecting the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea as if Jordan weren’t there either.
The Camp David accords are an even more serious way of solving this triangular conflict, however, which raises the question why Hussein condemned them. The question is the more disturbing when one considers that Reagan clearly—and rightly, in my view—based his new proposals on the Camp David agreements. In fact, Hussein’s condemnation was not quick. According to President Carter’s account, Hussein secretly conveyed to President Sadat at Camp David that Jordan was “willing to help implement the agreement” as Sadat understood it. On January 1, 1978, Hussein had told Carter in Tehran that he “would give Sadat his support,” that UN Resolution 242 calling for a retreat to “secure borders” should prevail, and that he would consider “minor modifications” of the 1967 border: “The people of the West Bank-Gaza should have the right to self-determination but not the right to claim independence.”5
Only after it became clear—or so a Jordanian official recently insisted to me—that Begin’s promise to Carter to “freeze settlements for the period of the negotiations” meant merely that he would accept a freeze for three months (that is, during the negotiations with Egypt), and not for five years as President Carter announced to a joint session of Congress, did the Jordanian government repudiate the accords. Does this mean that Jordan was—and still is—open to Camp David’s most important provision, that of a period of democratic transition in which West Bank Palestinians and Israelis could work out “autonomy” before more difficult issues such as sovereignty and Jerusalem are negotiated? The answer remains unclear. The agreement the Arab League made at Fez last December demanded a greatly reduced period of transition, a demand which Hussein faithfully transmitted to President Reagan in December.
When I put these contradictions to the Crown Prince his answer was unexpected. “The concept of transition is a virtue after fifteen years of occupation. It will revitalize political life where now Israeli extremists and PLO leftists exclude everybody else…. Some democratic formula is necessary for the process of disentanglement.” I suggested that it would be better to negotiate the status of Jerusalem in a climate of peace that would grow as Arab autonomy became a reality. He agreed, though Jordan understandably insists that the East Jerusalem Arabs participate in autonomy elections.
But then I asked Hassan how he squares the Jordanian call for Palestinian “self-determination” (as in the Fez agreement) with the spirit of Camp David, or even with the Jordanian interest in growing “similitude” between Palestinians and Jordanians. He replied, “Self-determination implies structure, process, protection, elections—not just the urge to independence.” He warmed to the subject: he has written a book about it.6 The PLO, he said, has taken over the “nationalist middle ground” in the face of Israeli attempts to suppress it. “Self-determination, whether Israeli or Palestinian, must be mutual, complementary, and not exclusive of the rights of Jordanian society….” He talked of a “cantonal evolution within a constitutional framework that could give a more effective expression to nationalism than a narrow mosaic of ethnicterritorial divisions.” Self-determination, he concluded, “must be based on the aggregate rights and freedoms of all sides of the Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli equation.”
This is surprising talk from an Arab prince whose king actually rules. Elections, rights, constitutions, cantons. Jordan is not Switzerland. Nor—one does well to keep in mind—is Hassan his brother. Hassan has an honors degree in Oriental studies from Oxford and reads the Hebrew-language press. His elder brother is a product of Sandhurst—an autocrat who is willing, I was told by diplomats in Amman, to hear earnest arguments for democracy from few people other than Hassan. The point of Jordan’s emphasis on mutual rights, or so Hassan assured me, is not to exclude PLO members and supporters. It is to demonstrate that self-determination is not a matter of having an organization but of working out a way of life.
The widow of the former prime minister and now a member of the National Consultative Council, Mrs. Laila Sharaf, was more concrete about what might happen on the West Bank. “Jordan will send in no military governors. West Bankers should manage their own affairs—not defense or foreign affairs—and govern themselves on the municipal level. The PLO can have a part in the peace process. Some PLO people will be mayors or governors, and can look forward to a role in the central government. But there will be no direct rule by the PLO as such.” Then she added quietly, as if merely stating a logical conclusion: “At the end of the peace process, there should be no PLO.” A diplomat who had been a high official in the Carter State Department confirmed this attitude: “The Jordanian view of the PLO’s role is to help absorb the shocks of the concessions which will have to be made to Israel—and then disappear.” I said to the crown prince that he wants the PLO to play Garibaldi to Jordan’s Cavour. He just smiled. But there has been no upgrading of the PLO’s military or political status in Amman since September.
Can that minimum of parliamentary self-rule be restricted to the West Bank? We can put aside for the moment the other problems—for example, the appeals from refugees in Lebanon that they not be abandoned and the violent opposition that may come from what Mrs. Sharaf called the “extreme and negative” factions of the PLO. A different and basic question is how the moderate East Bank Palestinians will respond to the prospect that, across the river, their relatives may enjoy greater freedoms than they do. Can one imagine a federation between an incipient republic and an absolute monarchy? Of course not, which is precisely why Prince Hassan’s interest in constitutionalism should be taken seriously. “We should have a liberal, constitutional monarchy,” he told me. “The latent potential of Jordan’s existing regime to initiate a successful, peaceful process of internal constitutional development is hidden from view by the deadlock over an Arab-Israeli-Palestinian settlement.” The crown prince was evidently angered and appalled by Israel’s continuing annexation of the West Bank. But he observes that “Israeli society, notwithstanding the apparent current triumph of extremism, has progressed more than its neighboring Jordanian-Palestinian societies along the path of political development.” Nasserism has failed. Radicalism has failed. The “totalitarian” fundamentalism of Khomeini’s Iran looms ahead. Jordan, he thought, could eventually work out a democratic framework reciprocally with Israel. Later he clarified this. “Instead of our proximity becoming a cause of friction and conflict over water and mineral resources, transport and routes, markets, a plan that guides the coordinated development of these resources can lead to further interdependence and collaboration.”
I tried to reconcile what I heard from Hassan with my other impressions of Amman. It does not seem to be a heavily controlled place but every visitor can sense that order is being firmly kept. “The mosques take over where the king leaves off,” a resident foreigner told me. Government drivers shuttle businessmen and invited journalists between the royal palace and the prosperous modern quarter called the Third Circle, where you find the Intercontinental, the American embassy, the Ministry of Information. You drive in a loop around the university, the sports complex, and the cultural center, rare public spaces dominated by square sentry boxes and minarets. Uniforms are not everywhere, but it is taken for granted that some of the security forces—especially the agents of the king’s “Muhabarat”—are not in uniform.
Foreign newsstands, found only in hotels, sell Newsweek, The International Herald Tribune, and The Jordan Times, which, like Jordanian television news (in Arabic, English, and Hebrew), is polite and predictable: His Majesty arrives, departs, receives. On the street you hear Oriental and pop music from cassettes, also car horns and loud calls to prayer. In the city center, every other block is an obstacle course of little concrete mixers, planks, hoses, and dull-eyed Egyptian laborers loading cinder blocks and sweeping away the dust. Here a house is going up, or being added to, a handsome stone building in the Arab style. Next door a new office building, scarcely bigger than the house, is being built for an insurance agent, a contractor, an importer of German cars or of Japanese calculators or of Dutch butter. Upper-class women are in the shops. But you must walk beyond the city center to see many women in the streets. Most of them are accompanied by children; the birthrate is about 3.75 children per family. And women from the Philippines or Sri Lanka wait on tourists. At night, there is no brightly lit quarter to go to, few nightclubs or cinemas, and little by way of theater. The fathers take over where the mosques leave off.
Still, when one gets beyond the threshold of someone’s house in this city of houses, one is astonished to find people who talk as freely as did Dr. Diemas or Ibrahim Abu Nab, a Palestinian film maker and editor of a family magazine. Every question about the regime and its future can be raised, even in conversation with a foreign professor one has no reason to trust. It is true that these are not hard times, that the king can afford to be magnanimous. But there seems to be something more to the openness in Amman, perhaps having to do with the elite’s inherited legacy of English tolerance, the effects of foreign education, of travel. A UN diplomat pointed out to me that Palestinians who work in the Gulf may become fed up with the sheikdoms that employ them, about which they can do little or nothing. “They voice their complaints where they can, at home in Jordan.”
“Our sons are drafted into the army,” Abu Nab told me, “our taxes are levied, there are thirty-four emergency regulations. There are government bureaucrats who will even tell me how much to charge for my magazine.” He changed the subject. “Elections here will explode the myth of the merit, power, and cohesiveness of the old Jordanian families, of the tribal obligations.” He said he respects the king’s efforts to solicit criticism, as he does in meetings throughout the country, following the traditional custom. But could the problems of his magazine be settled over a feast of roast lamb? No, Amman has outgrown such rituals. “If the economy declines, the Hashemites are in trouble. Palestinians can acquire ‘Jordanian consciousness’; but democracy for the West Bank will not be contained there.” Later, in criticizing the findings of the Kahan Commission report on the Beirut massacre—in an article in The Jordan Times—Abu Nab nevertheless lamented that “we lack any kind of commission of inquiry into anything.”7
What I found more astonishing is that Mrs. Sharaf, who had married into one of those “old Jordanian families,” substantially agrees with Abu Nab’s views. “You cannot isolate your people from ideologies from the outside,” she told me earnestly. “They travel, get newspapers, grow in sophistication, learn foreign languages.” (Her son, in sweat-shirt and jeans, was playing rock music in the next room.) Her late husband, Abdul Hamid Sharaf, prime minister in 1979 and 1980 and the founder of the National Consultative Council, had, she said, persuaded the king to accept the idea of a new “national covenant.” “The ‘covenant’ was to encourage voluntary associations. It would have meant the decentralization of power, virtual freedom of the press, and the organization of political parties—not communist parties but welfare-state parties would be approved.” In fact, Jordan already has a Federation of Trade Unions, including seventeen syndicated unions—for workers in the power company, the banks, hotels, and docks—and 120,000 members. The federation’s deputy secretary, Khalil Abu Kurmeh, has stated in an Amman paper that he hopes “to bring pressure to bear on employers and, eventually, to influence the political decisions of the government in favor of the interests of labor.”8
Mrs. Sharaf struck me as a charming, reticent woman, concerned to uphold her husband’s principles: “The king addressed the National Consultative Council. I was one of those asked to respond to his welcome. He said, ‘How good it is to have the Council,’ and so on, and I said, ‘No, it is not right to say this; the Council is temporary, because of the emergency.’ We want to have our parliament again.” Will the king, whom she obviously adores, agree? “It is not a matter of choice. The king knows that is inevitable.”
This prospect, according to well-informed Americans I talked to, is arguable. It is doubtful that Hussein would want to submit to Parliament anything but economic legislation, and there will be much less money all around if the process of both integrating the West Bank and liberalizing the regime should alienate the Gulf states without quickly producing new economic opportunities for the emerging middle class. The boom, after all, is the result of the state of war. Still, Abu Nab and Mrs. Sharaf are their own best evidence that Jordan’s approach to Palestinian self-determination can be more generous and constructive than what PLO spokesmen in the West have implied. Why shouldn’t there be some decentralization of power in the whole of Jordan? Why shouldn’t cantons evolve on both sides of the river—separate Palestinian cantons around Nablus, around Hebron and Jerusalem, a canton for the Jordan Valley, a Jordanian canton in Amman or Irbid? Why not draw up a liberal constitution? A former American diplomat in Amman put it this way: “It would be an elite politics. But it is an elite pluralism you have here. There is the Orthodox club, the Circassian community. There are East Bankers, tribal Jordanians, West Bankers, transplanted West Bankers. And there is always the chance that political parties will be bought off by Syrians or Saudis. But a constitutional monarchy will only give institutional expression to the openness that already exists here.”
It is hard to say what chance the Jordanian approach would have on the West Bank today, and whether the anger and dejection of the Palestinians living there are great enough to cause a decisive majority, already drawn to the PLO, to embrace Hussein. Of those who realize that this implies a choice, few are aware of Hassan’s ideas. “We have learned something from you,” Ziad Abu Ziad—an editor of the nationalist Jerusalem daily al-Fajr—recently told Amos Oz: “We want to live in an open society, a pluralistic and democratic one. This will not materialize so soon in Jordan. We remember the Hussein of old.”9
Nevertheless, a recent poll revealed that while 90 percent of West Bank Palestinians consider the PLO to be their “sole, legitimate representative,” 80 percent also favor Hussein’s offer to act on their behalf.10 Such ambiguous opinions reflect a sense of desperation. Danny Rubenstein, the well-informed West Bank reporter for Davar, recently reported that new orders from the Israeli military governors declaring uncultivated land to be “state land” will make it possible “to seize about a third of the West Bank.”11 A high-ranking Likud politician told me casually that Israel already “controls 80 percent of ‘outstanding’ land,” by which he apparently meant land for which there is no existing private title. And Israeli construction in the territories is continuing steadily. Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, whose careful report on the political economy of the territories was mentioned to me by nearly every Jordanian and West Bank Palestinian I spoke to, told me he expects that the Begin government could have more than 100,000 Jews settled on the West Bank by the end of 1986. Already Jewish settlers have municipalities—not to mention roads, power lines, and military encampments—similar to those of Jews in Israel proper. They purchase their apartments for approximately one third of what they would have to pay inside Israel, thanks to various government incentives.
Moreover, the vigilantism of the 11,000 or so Gush Emunim fanatics is increasingly felt in Arab towns. The smaller and more virulent Kach movement of Meir Kahane is thought by Israeli police to be responsible for at least two shootings into houses in Hebron. Of course, the situation is grim as well for Jews traveling in the West Bank: stonings and other acts of violence from Arab youngsters have become so commonplace that the new minister of defense, Moshe Arens, recently warned that “the time has not yet come when Jews can move about freely in Judea and Samaria without firearms.” He also warned Jews not to take the law into their own hands. But that cannot reassure the peaceful majority of West Bank Arabs who consider the occupation and de facto annexation of their land no less than an act of naked force.
Furthermore, the Lebanon war has clearly made a difference. Last spring the West Bank was violently protesting against General Sharon and the civilian administration of Professor Menachem Milson for firing the pro-PLO mayors of the major towns.12 A poll taken at Al-Najah University then revealed that less than a quarter of the population—as compared with four-fifths today—was willing to consider Jordanian representation. A group at al-Fajr itself recently organized a petition to the Algiers conference asking that Arafat go along with any realistic diplomatic efforts. A similar petition was sent by eighty-seven leaders of unions and professional associations in Nablus. Rashad a-Shawa, the deposed mayor of Gaza who was always sympathetic to Hussein but close to the PLO, told the Israeli Druse journalist Rafik Halabi that he regrets ever having gone along with the “armed struggle.” Such talk used to be taboo among West Bank Palestinians.
Abu Nab, who was director of PLO broadcasting in 1964, told me in Amman: “The people want peace. The war has given us a chance to express this.” After leaving the PLO in 1965, Abu Nab, a Jerusalemite by origin, lived and worked in Qatar, then in Beirut—where he saw the start of the civil war—and Cyprus; he came to Amman in 1978. “The PLO leader,” he said, “lives a different style of life. He gets money and prestige from the struggle, so why should he climb down from his ideologies?”
The mere idea of a state gives him almost complete relief. He has the opportunity for organized work, for political excitement. Just pursuing the ideal is enough to cure him of his moral sickness which is the consciousness of inferiority. And the higher and more distant the ideal, the greater the power of exaltation.
These are not the words of Abu Nab about Arafat. They were written about Theodor Herzl by Achad Ha’am, the Zionist thinker whose more pragmatic approach influenced Chaim Weizmann.
So Sharon and Begin, in trying to prepare the way for annexation last summer, may actually have prepared the way for Hussein. No encounter demonstrated this so vividly as an interview I had with Bassam Shaka, the former mayor of Nablus. Shaka has remained close to the PLO rejectionists since 1976. After the massacre near Haifa in 1978, in which almost forty civilians were killed, he refused to condemn the Palestinian terrorists. Two years later, when a bomb planted by Jewish terrorists blew off his legs outside his house, he refused the offer of treatment from Israeli hospitals. At the same time, he condemned more moderate mayors (such as Bethlehem’s Elias Freij) for being seduced by Camp David’s autonomy arrangements. When he was fired by Milson last year, tens of thousands of young Palestinians took to the streets in protest.
Today, Bassam Shaka says flatly, “We are ready for partition, for peace: we should recognize Israel and Israel should recognize us.” (Rafik Halabi, who interpreted for Amos Elon and me, has known Shaka for years. “He is very choked up,” Halabi whispered to us in Hebrew. “He has never said this to journalists before.”) I asked Shaka about Hussein’s initiative. “The PLO must decide,” he said, “but the armed struggle should give way to diplomatic efforts. We look forward to quiet. Israel has always exploited our radicalism. The PLO should cooperate with Hussein. We cannot reject Hussein’s initiative, but it must be endorsed by the PLO.”
While we were speaking, his teen-age son appeared. They embraced warmly and the boy sat down next to his father. Only after a few minutes did it become clear that he had been released from prison just an hour before, and that he was home for the first time in two months. We asked him the charge. “Incitement.” Was he tortured? No. Was he interrogated? No. His conditions? Fifteen young prisoners lived in a room of about seventy-five square feet with only a few blankets, no books, virtually nothing but time to talk about “the struggle.” His face glowed with pride. “But Hussein will get nothing,” Shaka interrupted, as if suddenly recalling our talk earlier. “Hussein cannot change the facts already established. There is no minimum Hussein can get that will let others in the PLO go ahead.”
Some of those “facts” are particularly striking in Nablus, a city of some 70,000 Arab residents nestled in a valley and surrounded by seven eroded mountains. There are Jewish settlements on every summit today. Some are pathetic, isolated outposts, to be sure; Halabi, Elon, and I drove up to a new settlement called Bracha A, where we found a few concrete barracks, fewer families, some troops, and a flag. We also found a private contractor who drives here every day from Ashdod to oversee his prospering business. Would he ever live here? “Never.” But the roads leading to the settlement are more impressive than the housing, and one road is already cut to Bracha B. They entirely bypass the Arab towns, and are portents of a Jewish presence that does not so much annex the territory as graft a thin layer of control over the top of it. In Nablus, some of the Gush Emunim faithful have taken over the “Tomb of Joseph,” yet another symbol of their misguided “Zionist” messianism. Next to it is an Arab school, and fights often take place. On the wall nearby, “Death to Collaborators” is painted in red Arabic letters. And, in fact, since Shaka’s firing no West Bank Palestinian will take the post of mayor. Nablus is now run by a low-ranking Israeli Druse officer. Public housing construction has been stopped. Roads are deteriorating. Families who protest by not paying their taxes soon find their electricity is shut off.
Shaka may be right about PLO attitudes but he may yet be proved wrong about Hussein. The lack of a clear PLO endorsement is only one of Hussein’s difficulties, and it may not be his most urgent one. Jordan also has a northern border. The Syrians mobilized against him a year before the Lebanon war, and their new SAM-5As threaten the skies over Amman even more than those over Tel Aviv. Iraq’s resistance to Syria’s Iranian allies can never be certain either. And Hussein knows that, for the first time since 1948, there is a government in Jerusalem that would not send aircraft to defend him, and would prefer to see the Hashemites fall.
This is why the first demand Hussein made of President Reagan in December had nothing to do with Israel. Rather, he insisted on, and got, a guarantee that the US would mount a police action to support his regime should he face, again, a Syrian challenge like the one of September 1970. In all the stale speculation whether the PLO will give Hussein a “green light” or an “amber light” it should not be forgotten that we ignore the lights when a cop appears and waves us through.
Nor should we conclude that a lack of “progress” in the talks concerning Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon will necessarily prevent Hussein from going ahead. Obviously, the king would like some clear sign that the US is prepared to press its will on Israel. He asked again on March 19 that the Americans do something to “enhance their [i.e., his] credibility.”13 He has also requested advanced weapons from the US. But the king cannot be sorry to see the Syrians pinned down in the Bekáa Valley while the Israelis stay on. An American diplomat told me: “Hussein would never give the Syrians a veto over the peace process by linking his initiative to some withdrawal on all sides.” Uppermost in his mind is whether he can maintain Saudi backing for the first step toward discussing a settlement with Israel. “He wants to be sure that the check is in the mail.” And it is hard to believe, at least in this diplomat’s view, that Hussein would have come this far in support of the Reagan plan without the Saudis behind him. That would not be like him.
Just why the Saudis should be willing to go along with a move by Hussein is harder to understand. They have made clear their skepticism about the Reagan administration’s intention to force concessions from Israel. They do not share a border with Syria and, according to one UN diplomat, are anxious that Israel withdraw from Lebanon. They are leery of PLO radicalism in the Gulf but usually try to keep their friends close and their enemies closer: Their last quarterly subsidy to the PLO, some $30 million, was paid in full and on time before the PNC meeting in Algiers. Assad gets a check too. But now we are getting to the heart of what distinguishes Hussein’s “initiative” from his permanent interests. Nobody I talked to in Jordan, Jerusalem, or Washington expects that a statement by Hussein to the effect that he is willing to recognize and negotiate with Israel will produce serious talks with the Begin government. The Jordanians have no more illusions than do the Saudis about US intentions or Begin’s plans for “Judea and Samaria,” no matter how open-spirited, dramatic, or popular with the West Bank Palestinians Hussein’s long-awaited statement proves to be.
Hussein’s aim would be to sharpen the differences between Israel and the US over settlements. He wants to test the administration’s power—what Reagan calls “resolve”—and, for this, a good number of Palestinian moderates are prepared to wait and see. Hussein’s willingness actually to sit down with the Israelis will be conditional on a freeze of settlements, at least “for the period of the negotiations,” to borrow the Camp David language; and a move by Hussein might be dramatic enough to force the Reagan administration to consider what has until now been unthinkable: real pressure on Israel to freeze settlements. “He wants to put the ball in our court,” a White House official told me.
Of course, this is also the way for Hussein to prove that he alone can end the occupation, which is precisely why PLO hard-liners at the Algiers conference were opposed to giving any opening to him whatever. One PLO representative I talked to in Washington conceded: “Whoever controls the diplomacy will also control the configurations of power in the future.” Yet no Palestinians who want peace—Arafat may now be among these—could justify obstructing the test of the US government that Hussein may undertake during the coming year.
The Begin government is transforming the land. So its policies have, at least in the short run, been to Hussein’s advantage. Anyone can see that there will be nothing about which to negotiate with Israel beyond, say, two years. Hussein must know that it is also in his interest to stop Israel’s annexation before it goes much further. Every Palestinian expelled from the West Bank is likely to be added to the East. And Hussein must wonder if he can control the “hell” that will be raised by Palestinian radicals whose ranks grow as the homeland is lost.
(This is the first of two articles. The second will appear later in the spring.)
April 28, 1983
See Fouad Ajami, The New York Times, February 18, 1983. ↩
This point was made forcefully in a paper by Professor Walid Kazziha of American University, Cairo, at the Lehrman Institute on March 2, 1983. ↩
See the ad on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, March 28, and also Sidney Zion’s Op-Ed page piece, “Is Jordan Palestinian? Of Course,” The New York Times, October 5, 1982. ↩
See Rami Khouri, The Jordan Valley (London: Longman, 1981), p.216. ↩
Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (Bantam, 1982), pp. 300 and 404. ↩
Palestinian Self-Determination: A Study of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Quartet Books, 1981). ↩
The Jordan Times, February 20, 1983. ↩
The Jerusalem Star, December 2, 1982. ↩
Davar, January 7, 1983. ↩
Peretz Kidron, National Public Radio, February 18, 1983. ↩
Davar, January 11, 1983. ↩
See my report, “The West Bank Tragedy,” nyr, June 10, 1982. ↩
Boston Globe, March 20, 1983. ↩