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Jordan to mend fences with Israel: King Hussein's confidence boosted by loyalists' victories in parliamentary polls

WITH parliamentary elections out of the way, Jordan yesterday was ready to sign a peace deal with Israel. Yasser Arafat confirmed on a visit to Brussels that Jordan and Israel would sign a 'friendly agreement' within the next few days. Although the PLO chairman gave no further details, an Israeli cabinet minister backed him up when he smiled and said: 'Apparently he knows something'.

King Hussein, asked about persistent reports that he held secret talks in Amman last week with Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, merely noted: 'We started on the path for peace long ago. Not everything can be exposed to the floodlights. But the peace talks are an ongoing process.'

After Monday's election, Jordan's new parliament is packed with ex- ministers, former army officers and men of the centre on whose loyalty the King can count. He has every reason to be pleased. The vocal Islamist Action Front, which opposes any peace with Israel, had its parliamentary representation cut by more than a third, from 22 to 16.

Most of the new MPs are centrists or traditionalists, many of them independents who relied on support from their tribes. In Kerak, for example, Abdel Hadi Majali, brother of the Prime Minister, won his seat more for reasons of tribal loyalty than for the policies he proposed as secretary-general of the Ahd party.

At a press conference after the announcement of the results, King Hussein declared: 'I'm very happy with the turnout. This reflects a growing sense of responsibility which satisfies me no end and fills me with pride.

'We appealed to them to send the best of those who could represent them in the coming difficult phase and they responded,' he added.

Despite all the grumblings about a lack of real issues, and the disaffection arising from last-minute changes to the electoral law, the increase in the overall number of voters was an endorsement of the parliamentary political process begun four years ago. According to the Interior Minister, 68 per cent of those who had taken out voting cards cast their votes, against 49 per cent in the first elections in 1989.

Those elected to the new 80-seat parliament were not all the King's men. Besides the Islamic Action Front's 16 seats, independent Islamists won another couple. The losses of the Islamic Action Front, the party of the Muslim Brothers, were largely due to the changes in the electoral law. The Islamists also lost support because in four years in parliament they were seen to do little more than mouth empty slogans. The most notable casualty was the former speaker of parliament, Abdel Latif Arabiyyat, who was beaten in Salt.

The Islamic Action Front is still the largest single party in parliament. King Hussein, however, made clear that this did not mean he would be calling on it to form the next government. The King again stressed his desire to keep politics out of the mosques.

At least three left-wingers were elected, and will form part of the opposition. These included a woman for the first time, the elegant and outspoken former television presenter Toujan Faisal. When she stood as a candidate four years ago she was accused of apostasy by Islamic zealots for daring to challenge current laws on inheritance, based on one interpretation of Islamic law.

Only about 15 seats were won by Jordanians of Palestinian origin, even though they who make up more than half the population. The most prominent was Taher al- Masri, a former prime minister who was returned to parliament.

'It is an excellent result for the Jordanian people,' declared Fahed Fanek, a robust champion of the rights of the indigenous East Bank Jordanians. 'It reflects the reality of Jordan. The King can have his way, democratically. Before he had his way by other means, through the mukhabarat secret police and prison.'

The election campaign might have had none of the verve and passion of those in Yemen or Kuwait. But they have set another standard in the Arab world for the fairness of their conduct. No serious incidents were reported. One candidate in Zerqa, Tayseer al-Amari, complained of ballot rigging in favour of the eventual winner, but the Interior Minister told a press conference he had received no reports of irregularities.

Parliament's role remains limited. Governments are not drawn from parliament, whose main function is to air grievances and debate public policy. Policy in key areas is still the preserve of the palace.

(Photograph omitted)