Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Smadar Peri
Yediot Aharonot
03 September 1999

Yediot Aharonot: Your Royal Highness, how often do you speak with Prime Minister Ehud Barak?

King Abdullah: I had the honour of meeting Prime Minister Barak during your election campaign. He came to Amman for lunch, and we had a wonderful meeting. We found out immediately that, being former soldiers, we see eye to eye. I believe we broke some barriers together. I could feel this from the first time we met. Naturally, since Barak was elected, even you who live in Israel can sense the enthusiasm worldwide.

Yediot Aharonot: Is this enthusiasm a sign of hope for change?

King Abdullah: I would say that it was born out of the assumption that the Israelis elected a government that will promote the peace process and that Israel is finally going to play a bold role. I believe that there was euphoria, not only here in Jordan but throughout the Middle East. Barak was warmly received wherever he went all around the world because the election results did not only mean that it was he who was elected but that the Israelis are willing to make peace. I told him as much.

Yediot Aharonot: Yet, right from the beginning, Barak insisted on lowering the expectations pinned on him.

King Abdullah: This is true, and it was very wise of him. There are still some minor technical details that need work. The peace process is a long and difficult struggle, which requires that people settle differences between them. When I talked with Barak, I told him: People see that you have a lot in common with Rabin. This is why we must be very careful. The road is still long and, because of the enthusiasm, we have to move things fast to keep this momentum alive.

After all, we do not want to lose momentum. If nothing moves in this region within the coming few months, I foresee frustration that will be even worse than during the Netanyahu period.

Naturally, I understand that there are technical details and that negotiations should continue. The simple man, however, does not see those little details. He tells himself: Israel wants peace, we want peace, but nothing is happening. This might lead to a downward turn -- because of the expectations. There were no expectations during Netanyahu's term.

Yediot Aharonot: Your Highness, how well do you know Israel?

King Abdullah: I know Israel. I know Jews that I met during my studies. I also met Israelis when I was a student.

Yediot Aharonot: Who were the Israelis who studied with you?

King Abdullah: Officers and colleagues who attended military courses. For example, my good friend, Colonel Yehuda Levi. I met him and his wife in 1984 at Fort Knox. I invited them over after the peace agreement was signed. There was another Israeli with whom I studied in England but regrettably, he was a different type and there was no chemistry between us.

Naturally, during the peace negotiations, we also dealt with security issues. Being the commander of the Special Forces, I met with other Israeli officers. Later on, I met with your former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and his men. I know Israel mainly through its army.

Yediot Aharonot: You will probably get to know our politicians soon. They are already trying to go on a pilgrimage to your palace for a photo opportunity with the king. That is always good for us.

King Abdullah: Yes. We are very careful and try to stay out of your politics. Your last elections turned into a very sensitive issue in Jordan. The late King was very careful about not being used to influence Israeli public opinion. I know how warm the Israelis were toward the late King, but he believed it would not be right for him to support a certain Israeli political party. This should be an exclusive Israeli decision.

Yediot Aharonot: Still, during your first week on the throne, Netanyahu made an insulting remark, saying, "Jordan is a weak country."

King Abdullah: I know what you are referring to. Again, you were in the midst of an election, and we realised right away that the atmosphere in Israel was very tense. Under such circumstances, we could explain to ourselves that certain statements made in Israel were meant for election purposes. I knew enough about Israel to understand why certain things are said in your country. Even if some remarks could be insulting, the mature thing for us to do was to take a deep breath, count to 10, and ignore them. We focused on the friendship built between Israel and Jordan so as not to let such remarks spoil it.

Yediot Aharonot: I see, Your Majesty, that you deliberately avoid referring to Netanyahu.

King Abdullah: I feel it would not be fair on my part to take a stand on Netanyahu. I can definitely make the odd remark but I cannot say that I know him well. I know enough about the late Rabin to say that he was a good man. It would not be fair on my part to compare the late Rabin with Netanyahu. There was one man or rather two, Rabin and the late King, who worked to lead us forward, while Netanyahu did not work to advance us the way we wanted and hoped for. Perhaps it is a matter of character.

Yediot Aharonot: When there is an urgent problem, do you pick up the phone and call Barak?

King Abdullah: Yes, of course, and vice versa.

Yediot Aharonot: Are you pleased with your contacts?

King Abdullah: I liked Barak from the first time I met him. I believe he is a man of values, a man of honour. I have the fullest appreciation for him. I think he is a man of his word. He is also very courageous. We had many contacts since he was elected, and we discussed many issues that concern us. When Barak calls me and says: "Abdullah, there is this problem," I take his remarks just as seriously as he takes them.

Yediot Aharonot: When the affair of the assassination attempt on Khalid Mishaal exploded, you, Your Highness, were the commander of the Special Forces. How did you feel upon learning that Mossad agents operate on Jordanian soil?

King Abdullah: I felt just like those who believe in peace felt, just like all the Jordanians felt. They were angry, they were frustrated, and they had every right to feel like that. Such events do not help peace and stability in the region. When one event follows another, the people's hopes are shattered and violence might break out.

The Mishaal affair was a bleak episode in Israeli-Jordanian relations. I am happy to say that it was a brief affair.

Yediot Aharonot: Are Jordanians still worried by the statement that "Jordan is Palestine?"

King Abdullah: No. When such statements are made, when they speak of "an alternative state" or a "confederation," I believe they are made by elements that want to complicate things.

Confederation is a word that could only make things complicated. It does not exist in my vocabulary. There is no doubt in my mind that once the Israelis and the Palestinians reach an agreement, there will be a future for everyone in the region: Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians. Then, we could have a discussion about what everyone wants to attain in the future. I feel it would be absolutely stupid to speak of a confederation at this stage. It contributes nothing. It is destructive.

Yediot Aharonot: Has a date been set for your first official visit to Israel?

King Abdullah: We have not discussed dates yet. Again, because of my warm and informal relationship with Prime Minister Barak, we did not go into details. There is no reason why I should not come to Israel but my visit should be part of a move that promotes the peace process.

Yediot Aharonot: Such as?

King Abdullah: For example, getting the parties together, sharing an event. My visit must be a positive signal, particularly because the situation between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Syrians is so very sensitive.

Yediot Aharonot: Nevertheless, your visit to Israel could help to improve the atmosphere between the two countries.

King Abdullah: Now that the King is dead, the Israelis must understand that I am my father's successor. We are exactly the same when it comes to Israel. At the same time, because of the process with the Palestinians and the Wye agreements, which are a very sensitive issue, we must be very careful and make sure that my visit is interpreted as a positive signal by both the Israelis and the Jordanians. Prime Minister Barak understands that.

Yediot Aharonot: Next month, on 26 October, we will be marking the fifth anniversary of the signing of the peace accords. This could be an opportunity for your visit. Would you like to come for a visit?

King Abdullah: I am still discussing this with Prime Minister Barak, and he has certain ideas in this context that are meant to symbolise peace. I would not want to go into details because the Israeli side will be the host. I will be your guest, and the Israelis will set the programme.

Yediot Aharonot: The situation seems a bit unclear with regard to the Syrian issue. The beginning was promising, with positive statements by Barak and Assad, and now the issue seems stuck.

King Abdullah: I believe that President Assad and Prime Minister Barak are committed to peace. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that President Assad wants to reach peace with Israel.

Yediot Aharonot: Can Israelis believe the messages that come from Damascus?

King Abdullah: If President Assad said something, he will keep his word. He has the highest regard for Barak, he respects him, and the feeling is mutual. This, in my opinion, is the ideal formula for both parties to use in settling differences between them.


Yet, here we are returning to the issue of expectations. Because of the great enthusiasm aroused by Barak's victory and the fear that nothing will happen, people in the Arab world, not only in Syria, might say: Okay, we had expectations, but nothing is happening on the ground. They will close up inside their shells again.

I understand that Barak wants to get the best possible out of the Wye agreements. I believe he has a good heart and that he wants to reach a meaningful agreement that will last. What he is telling the Palestinians is: Give me some time and I will give you an agreement worthy of appreciation, one that you will like more than the Wye agreements, which both parties signed while gritting their teeth.

The Palestinians, however, have become suspicious and, naturally, sensitive. They interpret Barak's proposal as deliberate stalling. They are frustrated; feeling that Israel is deliberately distancing itself from the agreements.

This problem emerged not only with the Palestinians. In Syria and in other countries, some people fear that Barak might not be all that they thought he was. This is why President Assad might reach the conclusion that Israel is not determined enough on the issue of peace and that perhaps Barak does not mean it seriously. This is why it is important to make progress now on the agreement with the Palestinians. After all, the parties agreed on some 70 per cent of the issues.

We say: Move forward on the issues you have agreed on, not only for the Palestinians and the Israelis but for other Arab countries that presently wish to join in. I will not name these countries. You will be surprised when you hear which countries are interested.

Yediot Aharonot: To the best of your knowledge, can the process resume without making a prior commitment to conduct a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights?

King Abdullah: (sighs) I believe both parties had made their statements concerning the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Now they can sit down and hold a practical discussion, and stay away from declarations that might start a dispute. I know that both parties have a similar concept of peace. Once they sit together, they will understand each other.

Yediot Aharonot: Do you believe that we could make border arrangements on sensitive spots, land exchanges, for example?

King Abdullah: I believe that the parties will focus on the big issue: the nature of peace. When they sit together, God willing, they will be able to reach understandings, just as we reached understandings. In negotiations, every side must give something. Someone once told me: The best deal is when both parties are displeased. This means that both have made concessions. I believe that this is what will happen.

Yediot Aharonot: Your Majesty, are you optimistic regarding the resumption of the process with the Syrians?

King Abdullah: I certainly am, because both leaders are committed to this. We in Jordan are no middlemen or brokers. We want to help them reach a situation in which the parties shake hands. We will step aside at that moment.

However, the only problem, I stress once again, is the Palestinian problem. If you solve your problem with Syria at the Palestinians' expense, there will not be true peace. The Arab world will not accept this. This is why I am saying yes, I am optimistic on the Syrian issue, but the Palestinian issue must be solved.

Last time Barak was in Morocco, I believe even he was surprised by the warmth with which he was received on the Arab side. I believe you witnessed that yourself. Arab leaders said: Finally, we have a man we can talk to overcome difficulties and disagreements.

Yediot Aharonot: Do your Israeli interlocutors agree with your order of priorities, according to which the Palestinian issue is more urgent than the Syrian?

King Abdullah: The Syrian issue may seem easier to handle, but it will not lead to a comprehensive solution. The ideal thing would be, naturally, to attain a dual solution at one time or one right after the other. What is important now is that you sign an agreement with the Palestinians before you make arrangements with the Syrians.

Yediot Aharonot: We are speaking on the eve of the Jewish New Year. Your Majesty, what would you wish the people in Israel?

King Abdullah: The same thing I wished them several months ago, right after your elections: I wish you courage and determination to promote the peace process. I wish that this government will continue to lead and reach a solution that will bring us all prosperity and well-being. We need your help in this. We must overcome outdated fears and paranoia. We must view our region as a place where Arabs and Israelis can live together. We suffered together for fifty years. Can we afford to suffer for another twenty or thirty years? I do not think so.