West Bank trepidation over Hussein manoeuvrings

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The Independent Online
When Jordan and Israel sign their peace treaty tomorrow, one question will be on the minds of Palestinians - what is King Hussein's intention towards the West Bank?

The King's recent political manoeuvring has been nervously monitored on the West Bank, where many believe he is positioning himself to reassert Hashemite supremacy.

A year ago such a prospect would have been unthinkable. Then voices of hope predicted that the signing of the peace accords between Israel and the PLO would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, with Yasser Arafat, PLO chairman, at its head.

Now, however, Mr Arafat is ensnared in the traps of the agreement he signed, seemingly incapable of producing progress for his people. The PLO chairman, once a key player in the 'peace of the brave', is not even invited to the ceremony tomorrow.

After 1967, when Jordan's forces abandoned their West Bank strongholds to the Israelis without so much as a fight, the King was widely considered a traitor. When he 'disengaged' from the West Bank in 1988, formally severing all ties over the lands he once ruled, it appeared that the King had set aside Hashemite claims over the West Bank.

But he seems never to have given up his dream of regaining influence on the West Bank, and he always feared the prospect of a Palestinian state which would swallow up tiny Jordan, where half the population is Palestinian.

The King was deeply angered by the Israeli-PLO peace deal, on which he was not consulted. He became obsessed with Mr Arafat's agenda, determined to thwart him at every turn. At one level the King has engaged in petty political tussles, going out of his way to insult Mr Arafat's representatives - for example, by keeping ministers waiting or refusing to see them.

Mr Arafat, in turn, has refused to visit Amman since the peace deal, and has engaged in his own petty retaliation, such as closing the pro- Jordanian newspaper an- Nahar. On another level the King has done all he can to shore up the status of Jordan, even if this means undermining Palestinian aspirations.

Economic deals have been done with Israel giving Jordan an upper hand and marginalising Mr Arafat. Jordanian investors have been encouraged to put money into the West Bank, building up a new dependency on Amman. Eight Jordanian banks have opened up in the West Bank in the past year and hundreds of Jordanian companies are looking for joint ventures.

The old tribal leaders of the West Bank, once favoured in the Hashemite court, have been encouraged to speak out in the King's favour. The King has used every means to remind Palestinians in the West Bank of their dependency on Jordan, including threatening to refuse to renew Jordanian passports, held by most West Bankers. Under the Israeli- Jordanian peace treaty, Palestinian refugees in Jordan will be settled where they are, in return for large payments from the US. This deal undermines the PLO insistence that all refugees should have the right to return to their homes.

Moreover, King Hussein has severely undermined Mr Arafat's hopes of winning east Jerusalem as his capital by striking a deal with Israel which preserves Amman's custodian status of holy sites. 'The King is looking after his own concerns, even though this has involved open war with Arafat,' says Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian academic.

Israel has been happy to promote the Jordanian role in the West Bank, particularly as the PLO autonomy deal has shown signs of falling apart.

The King's demands over the West Bank are far more acceptable to Israel than the demands of the PLO.

How far the King believes he can push his new role in the West Bank, however, remains uncertain. King Hussein well knows the dangers of asserting his presence on a population, much of which still deeply distrusts his intentions, and every West Banker knows that the mutual interests of Israel and Jordan would be to squeeze the Palestinians' last hopes of statehood.

On Saturday, protests were held in Jerusalem against King Hussein, and the monarch is being warned against selling out the Palestinian cause by his own Palestinian-Jordanian citizens. Annexation of the West Bank by Jordan is clearly not an option - for now.