Border deaths expose gulf in Middle East

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The Independent Online
It was meant to be a symbol of peace: 250 acres of orchards and fields on the Jordan river, protected by Jordanian soldiers, but freely visited by Israeli farmers and tourists. As visitors enjoyed the bucolic vista they would be reminded by the abandoned concrete bunkers and old minefields of an earlier, more violent period in the relations between Israel and Jordan.

It must have seemed a neat solution to diplomats and officials at the time of the signing of the peace treaty between the two countries in 1994. Jordan won back sovereignty over the patch of land at Naharim/Baqura, where the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers meet. In return the Jordanians recognised Israel's "private land ownership rights and property rights" for a renewable period of 25 years.

Just how distant this compromise was from the real world of the Middle East became clear this week when Ahmed Moussa Mustafa, a driver in the Jordanian tank corps, shot dead seven Israeli girls on a school outing. The "island of peace" became a death-trap. Teachers on the school bus said other Jordanian soldiers did not shoot at the gunman and only tackled him after a delay.

The ordinariness of Ahmed Moussa Mustafa suggests his action was the product of increasingly poisonous relations between Israel and Jordan, not of the mental derangement of one man. He is neither a Palestinian nor a devout Muslim nor has he any history of psychological problems. He is a Jordanian, married with three children, from a village near the northern city of the Irbid.

Possibly he carried out the murders because of the furious exchange between Jordan and Israel earlier in the week. King Hussein accused Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, of leading Arabs and Israelis "towards an abyss of blood." Yesterday An Israeli columnist suggested a report, since denied, that Mr Netanyahu had attributed this outburst to a history of mental instability in the Jordanian royal family, might have led to the gunman's attack.

The peace treaty was meant to mark a transformation in Middle East politics. King Hussein abandoned Iraq as his strategic ally and looked to Israel and the US. He wanted political rehabilitation, as well as forgiveness for $700m (pounds 430m) debts, from Washington in return for the treaty. He wanted to insure himself, through American and Israeli friendship, against any threat to his monarchy emanating from an emerging Palestinian state.

Three years later, the diplomatic map looks different. The King and the Jordanian political leadership has acquired an almost visceral hatred of Mr Netanyahu. Dislike has grown ever since the Israeli leader failed to tell Jordan of his plan to open a tunnel in Jerusalem last year, which led to 61 Palestinian and 15 Israeli deaths. When Mr Netanyahu refused permission for Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to fly from Amman to Gaza this month King Hussein slammed the phone down.

But there is more to this than Mr Netanyahu's failings. King Hussein rules as many Palestinians, more than 2 million, in Jordan as there are Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Any strain between the latter and Israel affects Jordan. King Hussein could not have signed the peace treaty with Israel three years ago if Mr Arafat had not signed the Oslo accords in 1993. Now this process is going into reverse. A crisis between Israel and Mr Arafat means a crisis with Jordan. King Hussein was the only Arab leader to cultivate Mr Netanyahu before the last election, but the Israeli Prime Minister is careless of past obligations. Probably he took King Hussein for granted, thinking him too weak to cause trouble. But Jordan is closer to the US than it was in 1994 in the wake of the Gulf war. Opposition to Israel in the Arab world is also more popular at every level than in the past.

It is also easier for Jordan to get along with the Palestinian leadership. Relations have improved with Mr Arafat because his grip on the West Bank is now so strong he no longer needs to worry that Jordan wants to return there. Palestinian fear that Jordan would re-establish its rule on the West Bank, which it held before 1967, was a constant source of tension.

It is easy enough to blame Mr Netanyahu for all this. In the wake of the Naharim massacre many Israelis will hold him responsible for their lives becoming more insecure. After all, last year he won the election by promising "peace with security". But a majority of Israelis voted for parties opposed, to a greater or lesser extent, to the implementation of the Oslo accords. Peace with Jordan was popular among Israelis because they thought no price had to be paid for it. Few realised that if a Palestinian state was denied and the occupation of the West Bank was not ended, then the basis for peace with the Jordanians as well as the Palestinians would disappear.