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King walks a tightrope in divided and bitter Jordan

Peace in the balance: Evidence of assassination plot mounts as Arafat makes first visit to Israel to offer widow condolences; The Middle East after Rabin


The consequences of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination have already made a political impact in Jordan, whose formal peace with Israel has sharpened the division between King Hussein and Islamic fundamentalists.

The other night an angry, haggard King was on national television, lashing out at those in Jordan who saw Rabin's death as cause for grim celebration. "What kind of press is this?" demanded the King, talking of one local newspaper that had headlined Rabin's murder "One Killer Less". In his opinion, said the King, the headline should have read "One Killer More" - Rabin's Jewish assassin.

"This is not democracy - this is damaging to the interests of the whole nation," he told his audience of senior military and intelligence officers. His words served as a royal warning that Jordan's liberalisation of political life and the latitude allowed to its media could be withdrawn as quickly as they were granted.

As he has done since ascending the throne in 1952, the King walks a tightrope. Among Jordan's 4.2 million people are many of Palestinian origin - the numbers are in dispute but range between 40 and 70 per cent. Jordan's choice for peace with Israel was inevitable but psychologically painful for people who were exiled from Palestine in 1948 and 1967.

So far it is a "cold peace". The new Israeli embassy in Amman is buried in the depths of a luxury hotel built like a fortress and protected by dozens of Jordanian security men. The Israelis could not find a landlord prepared to lease them suitable premises. The new Jordanian ambassador to Tel Aviv has set straight to work lodging property claims by families who fled Jerusalem 47 years ago, leaving their desirable Ottoman era houses to the mercy of property speculators.

The King's own graveside eulogy to Rabin produced a dangerous combination of praise in Israel and doubt at home. His concluding words - implying that he too sought the same end as Rabin and as his assassinated grandfather King Abdullah - made many viewers in Amman gasp in shock. "The people I was watching television with were very upset - they thought his words were tempting fate," said a diplomat in Amman. Jordan's Arabic language newspapers omitted the words in their reports of the speech.

The resentments in Jordan are deep and they were deepened by the Gulf war against Saddam Hussein, who was a hero to many Jordanians and Palestinians. A stream of propaganda and money still issues forth from the ridiculous mock-Babylonian portals of the Iraqi embassy - a prominent local journalist went briefly to prison recently for alleging that 40 opinion formers were on the Iraqi payroll. Crown Prince Hassan intervened to get him out.

After the Gulf war King Hussein made two previously impossible decisions. He authorised the peace treaty with Israel in October 1994 and turned his back on Saddam, allowing the Iraqi leader's son-in-law to take refuge in Amman earlier this year.

Most public reaction seemed muted. But the peace treaty was anathema to the Islamists, who gained 15 per cent of the votes and 21 out of 80 seats in Parliament in elections in 1993. Denouncing the treaty as "blasphemy" they moved from co-operation to confrontation with the palace.

That ominous development has increased speculation in Amman about Jordan's political future. Real power still rests with the monarch, although 19 political parties have been registered. In 1992 the King had a cancerous kidney removed and, although he has been given a clean bill of health, statistics give patients an average survival rate of five years after this type of surgery.

King Hussein has managed a deft diplomatic shift to make peace with Israel, to regain confidence among Western powers and to rebuild friendships with Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations outraged by his attitude during the Gulf war. He is not giving up, and this week called on the silent majority of Jordanians who he believes support the peace process. This morning tens of thousands of people are expected in the capital to demonstrate their support.