Jordan: Looking for an Opening

“How can Israeli soldiers fight a ten-year-old boy who wants to die? Or a teen-ager at the wheel of an exploding truck—smiling because he knows that in ten seconds he will be in Heaven? This is the generation I am afraid of!” The speaker, though she had just come from her weekly Hebrew lesson, was not an Israeli or a Jew. I was talking with Mrs. Laila Sharaf, a Druse woman of Lebanese origin, who is the Jordanian minister of information. We were sitting in her office off the Third Circle in Amman. It was early August, and I’d just arrived in Jordan after several weeks in Israel.

Mrs. Sharaf speaks English enthusiastically and precisely and knows many Americans. But she cannot fathom America. “We don’t have that same feeling we once had that America can be relied on,” she said. “The kind of support we need to survive has seriously eroded since the Fifties and Sixties. If some hostile Arab country attacked us we would probably get American support. But if Israel undermines us, nothing. For Americans, and particularly for American Jews, Israel is an abstraction, while we face an Israel that is concrete.”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Sharaf will send her son to Boston this fall, to study piano and guitar. She says this casually, as if it were no more unusual than sending him to high school in Amman. She talks not only about America but about the “concrete” Israel in a matter-of-fact way. Showing me her Hebrew workbooks she points to the illustrations of attractive, serious-looking Israeli students going off to school. “Under conditions of peace,” she says, “there is no limit to what we can do.”

What causes her voice to rise and tighten is Islamic extremism. She talks of Khomeini’s young guards, willing to die in battle against Iraq, which Jordan is supporting more actively than ever, of the increasingly militant Shi’ite radicals in southern Lebanon, and of the Nasserites among Jordan’s Palestinian community, now well over 60 percent of the Jordanian population. There are also increasing numbers of students at Jordan’s own religious colleges. Mrs. Sharaf finds the undercurrents they represent to be deeply threatening:

“They are very dangerous; you can’t give them an opening. If we are undermined by Israeli aggression then the Israelis are undermined. Before the 1967 war, the Israelis said, ‘if only the Arabs would sit down with us!’ Now the situation is reversed. Can Israelis not see that by failing to deal with the outside world, by failing to defuse the Palestinian bomb, they are missing the chance to defy the extremists? Is Qadhafi the only Arab that makes sense to them? Kissinger wanted us to buy time, but extremism on both sides is overcoming us. We have bought too much time.”

We talked about the Israeli elections. Mrs. Sharaf was familiar with the nuances separating the various Israeli splinter parties, indeed, with the manifestations of Jewish religious extremism in the campaign. She realized that a clear…

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