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Jordanians seem resigned to peace with old foe Israel

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MADABA, Jordan -- On the second day of the 1967 War, Israeli soldiers stuck a gun to the head of Mohammed Mousa and threatened to kill him. They chased his wife and four children from their home near Jerusalem, which they never saw again.

Yet today, Mr. Mousa, 50, welcomes the prospect of peace between Israel and Jordan, his adopted home.

"It would be better for everyone," he said.

Shukri Qiraja, now 62, was a soldier in Jordan's Arab Legion, guarding Jerusalem's Damascus Gate when the Israelis stormed through in that war. He hurriedly changed from his uniform to civilian clothes, and later slipped back to Amman to complete 24 years in the military. He, too, approves of peace with his former enemy.

"Why not? It's a good step," he said at his home in Madaba, 20 miles south of Amman.

Jordan's King Hussein will meet today with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Washington, the latest in a series of symbolic "firsts" likely to lead to peace between the longtime enemies.

In Washington, a senior U.S. official said yesterday that Israel and Jordan will issue a joint declaration today ending their 46-year-long state of war and laying out plans for normalizing relations. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters that he expects a peace treaty within a few months.

Perhaps more remarkable than what is happening is the equanimity with which Jordanians are accepting the turn of events.

This is a country that fought two wars with Israel and where more than half the population is Palestinian. Virtually every Palestinian family lost its home in the flight from the 1948 or 1967 conflicts.

Yet today, there is not much excitement about the conciliation with Israel. The majority of Jordanians simply accept it.

"People have resigned themselves to it. They are quite indifferent," said Sari Nasir, a sociologist in Amman.

There have been no demonstrations, few public displays of opposition -- or support -- as old taboos have been broken with handshakes and formal visits by Israeli leaders.

When King Hussein started this flurry of steps with a speech July 9 saying that he was willing to meet publicly with Israelis, Jordaniansswitched channels to watch the World Cup playoffs.

"To be honest, I'm not so interested," said a university professor who normally prides himself on keeping informed. "I lost interest when the same leaders that were telling us we will liberate Palestine started saying that just making peace was a victory."

Many Jordanians believe that their country is trapped: pressured by the United States and hemmed in by the maneuverings of the other Arab nations. They say that King Hussein has no other move than to make peace with Israel now.

"We tried war, and it was no good," said Sameh Salame Khzouz,59, co-owner of a refrigerator repair shop in Madaba.

"We want the peace because there is no other way," agreed his partner, Nikola Kawar.

When Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, revealed his secret negotiations with the Israelis and signed a pact with them last September, the ranks of Arab unity in the latest round of negotiations were broken.

"People think, . . . if Arafat can shake hands with Rabin, so what's the problem with the king doing it?' " said Metri Twal, an Amman travel agent.

King Hussein acted now in part to avoid being left behind if Syria and Lebanon strike deals with the Israelis, many believe.

"Right now, it's a good step. If Syria signed first, Jordan would lose much," said Mr. Khzouz.

King gives candid speech

Perhaps more to the point, King Hussein is moving now as if under orders from the United States. He admitted as much in a candid speech to Parliament two weeks ago.

He said that the United States had demanded the moves toward Israel. In return, the Americans said they would write off nearly $1 billion in Jordanian debts to the United States and sell it more modern weapons, the king said.

"If my encounter with the Israeli prime minister is the price . . . I consider it as a duty and honor to serve my nation," he said, sounding like a soldier on a suicide mission.

This financial blackmail by the United States is effective in economically strapped Jordan. The country of 4.5 million people has little industry and few natural resources.

Before the 1991 Persian Gulf war, it depended on aid from gulf Arab states and money sent back by a far-flung work force in the Arab world. Jordan found both sources cut off when King Hussein sided with Iraq in the war. Jordan is desperate to turn those spigots back on.

"Jordan doesn't have any alternatives," said Dr. Nasir. "Unless Jordan finds some material resources, it needs outside help."

Bowing to the demands of the United States, which Jordanians see as the patron of Israel, does not sit well with some here. It is one reason for the lack of enthusiasm for the king's meeting with Mr. Rabin.

"Support for the peace process was stronger two years ago. Part of the euphoria and great expectations . . . are not there anymore," said Radwan Abdullah, chairman of the political science department of the University of Jordan.

"People became disillusioned. They support the peace moves, but it's a negative sense. If you're in a house, you don't want the roof to collapse. People are desperate, and they know there is no chance except peace."

The Islamic parties, who oppose any deal with Israel, compose almost one-third of the Jordanian Parliament. But Dr. Abdullah said that public support for those parties would dwindle if they openly challenge the royal regime.

"The king still is very popular," he said. "He's a sense of stability. He's holding things together."

The king's support has always been greatest among the native Jordanians, the Bedouins. They also are dedicated soldiers, and took heavy casualties in the wars with Israel.

Many lost relatives

"Many people here lost relatives in the wars with Israel, and they don't want to repeat that," said Ali Al-Hroot, a university professor and a Bedouin who lives in the small village of Libb, south of Amman.

"They believe in the king 100 percent. If he says it's time to make peace, the people believe him."

The most likely opposition would seem to be from Palestinians. But many of them -- especially those who fled to Jordan in 1948 -- havesince settled here comfortably.

In a section of Madaba still officially a Palestinian refugee camp -- though it is neat and developed -- Azit Ja'ara, 56, said that he is for peace. But he added, "I don't know if it will be good for Palestinians."

His family fled in 1948 from an Arab village west of Jerusalem, since razed. The king's conciliation with Israel formally surrenders Arab claims to those former Arab villages that are now part of Israel.

"After that, I guess I will be Jordanian," said Mr. Ja'ara with a shrug. "That will be OK."

Treaty has opposition

But elsewhere in the Palestinians' camp, 18-year-old Khalid Ahmad swears his opposition to any peace with Israel. "I don't like Israelis coming into Jordan," he said.

But others do. If peace with Israel brings open borders with tourists and trade, financial aid from the West and a welcome from the gulf states for Jordanian workers to return, then it will be a popular step, say Jordanians.

"What do we have to lose?" said a top government official, who insisted on anonymity. "We've been at war for 50 years. We hate their guts, and they hate our guts. But now it's over."

Ironically, he noted, peace with Israel probably will bring protection by Jordan's former enemy from any threats from other Arab states.

"King Hussein is going to be depending on God . . . and the Israelis," he said. "Israel is our new ally."

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