Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Joby Warrick
The Washington Post
17 January 2012

“Jordan’s Abdullah sees glimmer of hope in Mideast talks”


Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Monday cited “baby steps” of progress after two weeks of talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and said he is convinced that both sides are looking for a way to break the impasse that has stalled peace negotiations for more than two years.

But the Jordanian monarch, in Washington for meetings on Tuesday with President Obama, said the parties have major hurdles to overcome before they can even begin to grapple with concrete proposals for creating a future Palestinian state. And he worried that time is running out.

“I am cautious about saying that I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Abdullah, whose government is hosting the first negotiations since 2010 in which Palestinian and Israeli negotiators met together in the same room.

The low-level talks, organised by the diplomatic Quartet consisting of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, began Jan. 3 and completed a third round Sunday, with the next meeting scheduled for Jan. 25. Despite widespread pessimism about the outcome, the discussions have been “both good and tough,” and a chance for the two sides to “start throwing initial passes at each other” to set the stage for more formal negotiations, Abdullah said.

While each side has accused the other of blocking progress, Abdullah said sentiments in the region appear to have shifted in recent weeks.

“I do believe they want a way out, a way to get to [direct] negotiations,” Abdullah said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We all know the positions in which they have entrenched themselves. However, the intent, I believe, is there — from both sides. It is little baby steps, right at the beginning.”

Abdullah, who presides over one of only two Arab governments with peace treaties with Israel, has sought repeatedly to help broker an agreement that would create an independent state for more than 3 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In interviews last spring, he expressed deep pessimism about the chances for a peace settlement, citing what he described as an increasingly conservative political culture in Israel that appeared less inclined to compromise on borders and security arrangements with the Palestinians.

Israeli leaders also have pointed to continued instability in Arab countries as a reason to move cautiously in allowing the creation of an independent Palestinian homeland on Israel’s borders. But Abdullah said recent parliamentary elections in Egypt have persuaded at least some Israeli officials that the consequences of delaying peace could be more harmful in the long run. “The more the Israelis play with kicking this down the line, the more they are in danger of losing what they think is the ideal future Israel,” he said.

Abdullah said he was meeting with Obama to fine-tune strategy, but he acknowledged that it was not yet time for a major U.S. push on Middle East peace.

“We can’t expect for the Americans to wade in, full-weight, unless we have enough of a package where the outcome is somewhat predictable,” he said.

His remarks came as Israeli and Palestinian leaders squabbled over the future of the Quartet-sponsored talks. Palestinian leaders are insisting on significant progress in the negotiations by Jan. 26, which they say is the deadline initially set by the Quartet for an exchange of proposals on borders and other key issues. Israeli officials say the deadline is April 3.

“The Palestinians have no interest in entering peace talks. I’m ready to travel now to Ramallah [in the West Bank] to start peace talks with Abu Mazen, without preconditions,” the Associated Press quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as telling lawmakers in a closed meeting. Abu Mazen is the nickname of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

State Department officials urged the Palestinians to be more flexible about deadlines.

“Although this Jan. 26 date has been out there, we do not want to see it be a rigid sort of straitjacket which chills the atmosphere,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.


Interview transcript:

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who meets with President Obama on Tuesday, discussed Middle East peace and regional security issues during a conversation with The Washington Post. Here are some highlights:

On current, low-level talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators:

An opportunity presented itself where Israelis and Palestinians were confident with the Jordanian umbrella to start throwing their initial passes at each other. . . . We needed to get the two sides to talk. Both [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas — I believe want a way out, a way to get to negotiations. We all know the positions in which they have entrenched themselves. However, the intent, I believe, is there—from both sides. It is little baby steps, right at the beginning.
There are a lot of people who look at these negotiations negatively. My answer to that is: For them to at least try to talk to each other is better than nothing. If you understand the region, you realise how important that is.

U.S. role in the peace process:

Because of American elections — because of America looking at its own challenges — we can’t expect for the Americans to wade in, full-weight, unless we have enough of a package where the outcome is somewhat predictable. So the responsibility is on all of us to bring the parties close enough together so the Americans can step in and finalise the deal. I’m not here expressing demands of the president at this stage. . . . The presidential card can only be played once, and we are nowhere near the position at this stage where the presidential card can be played. It is up to us to do the heavy lifting, not the president.

Israeli settlements as an obstacle:

We hear great discussions about peace from the Israelis, but what we’re seeing on the ground is something completely different. Negotiators are trying to overcome these problems, and again, it’s going to take strong work from the international community on both sides, and particularly from the Israelis on settlements, to allow enough common ground. . . . What we’re trying to achieve in the short term is to try to get the Palestinians and Israelis to talk about security and borders. I think once you’ve defined the issue of borders, then you’ve solved the issue of settlements, and you can go straight into security talks.

On the perils of delaying peace:

Waiting is the worst mistake the Israelis can make. It wasn’t until the elections in Egypt that suddenly Israel awoke. . . . Now I think there has been a big shift in the way the Israelis look at the issue, and it is imperative for them . . . [to] get the Israeli-Palestinian issue off the menu.

If we haven’t crossed that line, we’ll cross the line sooner or later where the two-state solution is no longer possible, at which point the only solution is the one-state solution. And then, are we talking about apartheid or democracy? The more the Israelis play with kicking this down the line, the more they are in danger of losing what they think is the ideal future Israel.

The conflict in Syria and its regional impact:

You are going to continue to see violence and demonstrations and conflict in Syria for the time being. I don’t see anything that is going to change what we’ve been seeing over the past couple of months unless there is an unforeseen situation where the international community gets more involved. Here I have my concerns. Jordan, first, is with the Arab consensus. But at the same time, we have been on record, historically, of saying we have a policy of non-interference. And when people go for the armed option, I believe that is a dangerous Pandora’s Box.

On political reform in Jordan:

I think luckily in Jordan, we’re going from Arab Spring to Arab summer, which means we’re rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work of reform. I think the Arab winters that we’re beginning to see around us have had impact on Jordanian society, to invigorate [us] to make sure we continue into the Arab summer and not into the Arab winter.
I think people understand the process. . . . Compared to a lot of other countries, it is a technical issue now, as opposed to an emotional issue. Now you certainly have elements in Jordan that, no matter what you do, are not going to be happy. If everybody is happy, then something is wrong with the democratic process.

On Jordanian contributions in Afghanistan:

For Afghans to see Arab — and, more importantly, Muslim — troops operating at the level that we’re operating in, based on moderate Islam, has had a tremendous impact. You need only look how many imams we’ve had working with our coalition partners in preaching moderate Islam in Afghanistan.