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French Version

Jordan and the 'last chance conference'

By Oraib Al-Rantawi

Of all the countries in the region, Jordan has been the most enthusiastic and active in the course of the past two years in calling to exploit what could be considered "the last chance for peace in the region." This position gained additional momentum following US President George W. Bush's speech last July in which he expressed his desire to host an "international meeting" for peace this autumn.

The Jordanian perspective, which supports the Bush initiative, is based on a number of considerations of which two are particularly important. First, solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in its various aspects and establishing a viable Palestinian state is a goal in and of itself that will positively impact both Jordan's and the region's security and stability. And second, solving this conflict will contribute to enhancing the position of the Arab moderate camp and lessening the influence of extremist forces in the region - Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and radical fundamentalist movements - that are considered by decision-making institutions in Jordan as threats to both Jordanian national security and regional stability.

Like the Palestinian Authority and some Arab countries, Jordan believes that the conference should come up with a document that outlines a clear plan to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and sets out a series of steps necessary to establish a viable Palestinian state and ensure Israel's security.

But Jordan's great enthusiasm for the conference is accompanied by caution and wariness regarding the consequences of once again missing an opportunity for peace. Recently it was noticed that official Jordanian statements accompanying the faltering preliminary negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis tend to lower expectations and repeatedly warn of the risks arising from the failure of the Annapolis conference, which would affect the entire region and not only Palestinians and Israelis.

Some Jordanian newspapers have recently expressed surprise at the optimistic climate generated by certain Palestinian officials concerning Annapolis. They wonder whether the Palestinians are planning to present the Jordanian leadership with an "Oslo-2-like" surprise that could jeopardize Jordan's interests in final settlement negotiations. This has prompted some journalists and newspapers to talk about "coldness" in relations between Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, and the Jordanian leadership.

Jordanian political sources identify Jordan's basic interests in final settlement negotiations as the refugee issue, Jerusalem, security arrangements, water and the future of economic cooperation. Jordan hosts 40 percent of all Palestinian refugees, who account for more than half its population. It is committed to guard religious and holy sites in East Jerusalem under the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. It is interested in the water issue due to its financial deficit, and in economic cooperation and financial assistance that would enable it to rehabilitate a large portion of Palestinian refugees. This is in addition of course to issues of common security in light of the dangers resulting from the growing role of fundamentalist forces and Islamic movements in Jordan, Palestine and the rest of the region.

Given all these considerations, there is a growing interest in Jordan in the preliminary negotiations now in progress between Palestinians and Israelis, accompanied by growing concern over their possible failure. There are also warnings of the consequences of ignoring Jordan's interests in the final settlement, accompanied by calls to engage Jordan in the negotiations at an early stage so that it can explain its position, present its demands and defend its interests.

Jordan also views the Annapolis conference from a regional perspective as an expression of moderate Arabs' joint interest in pursuing regional peace and dealing with extremists who are trying to impose their agenda on the region. In this context, Jordanian diplomacy prefers to coordinate its steps with those Arab parties now joined in the "Arab quartet," which in addition to Jordan comprises Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government.

Jordanian diplomacy also seeks to guarantee the support of a large number of Islamic countries for the Annapolis conference, with the aim of providing an Arab and Islamic "safety net" for Palestinian negotiators. This explains the phone calls and visits of Jordan's King Abdullah with the leaders of Indonesia, Turkey and Pakistan, with the aim of encouraging them to participate in the autumn conference.

Decision-making circles in Jordan believe that the success of the Annapolis conference in taking steps along the path to a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would remove the "Palestinian card" from the political auction block, where it is used for purposes that serve the interests of parties from Iran and Syria to Hizbullah and Al-Qaeda and that neglect and often contradict the interests of the Palestinian people.

Jordanian diplomacy seems convinced that wide circles in the US administration, specifically in the State Department, share the Jordanian and moderate Arab vision that stresses the need to solve the Palestinian issue in all its aspects, regardless of the direction of American policy in Iraq, the outcome of the Iranian nuclear program crisis or the state of relations between Washington and Tehran. Although Jordanian decision-making circles take into consideration that the United States might have a hidden agenda behind its call to hold the Annapolis conference - one seeking to mobilize Islamic and Arab countries' support for the US in Iraq and/or in its confrontation with Iran - these circles think that Annapolis is an opportunity that should be seized regardless.

For all these reasons, Jordanian diplomacy is paying special attention to Annapolis. It seeks through various channels to help both the Palestinians and Israelis reach a common document as a basis for a final settlement. It also believes, for the same reasons, that the failure of the conference to reach the desired results will strengthen the position of Hamas against Abbas in Palestine as well as that of Hizbullah and its allies in fighting Siniora's government and its allies in Lebanon. Failure will also strengthen the position of Iran and the influence of forces of extremism and fanaticism, giving them new pretexts to pursue their activities and win the support and sympathy of the frustrated and angry Arab and Islamic public.

Oraib Al Rantawi is a media columnist and director of Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

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