Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The King's London Times Interview

Taking a break from the pope today. But I was stuck in "pope traffic" last night. Our reporters and chief photographer (who are out there in the field) tell me they are exhausted from covering the pope. Nothing like it, they say. They have to show up hours ahead of schedule to events to get through extremely tight security...
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Abdullah's Vital Role

As the Royal Jordanian Airlines jet carrying Pope Benedict XVI to Israel taxied toward the waiting dignitaries yesterday, the cockpit side windows were adorned with the Vatican and Israeli flags. That was in keeping with protocol, yet it was a remarkable sight: a Muslim carrier bringing the Catholic pontiff to the Jewish state.

Then, too, there was the afterglow of the warm hospitality extended to the pope earlier by King Abdullah II and Queen Rania.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is interested in meeting with Abdullah before he sees President Barack Obama next week in Washington. Yesterday, however, directly after welcoming the pope, Netanyahu was off to Sharm e-Sheikh for lunch with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and talks about the new government's approach to the Palestinian issue, Iran and, presumably, Gilad Schalit.

Abdullah, for his part, has met with Obama (on April 21); addressed the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC (last Friday); and granted (yesterday) a major interview to London's Times - headlined, on page one: King's Ultimatum: Peace Now Or It's War Next Year.

Throughout, he's been hammering home the message - delivered with regal understatement - that Israel is to blame for the negotiating impasse with the Palestinians, and that it has maybe 18 months to submit to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Everything, he says, hinges on the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. If there is "no clear American vision" - read: If Obama doesn't lean hard on Israel - the president will lose his credibility, and the region will go up in smoke.

THE KING is a genuine moderate. His father made peace with Israel in 1994. In a region prone to shrill bullying, Abdullah prefers reasonable-sounding persuasion.

And yet it is striking that all his recent pronouncements held hardly a hint of Arab self-criticism; not a word about what the Palestinians need to do for peace.

The king naturally wants to end the "occupation." He claims the "Arab Peace Initiative is the most important proposal for peace in the history of this conflict." And he warns that "any Israeli effort to substitute Palestinian development for Palestinian independence" is unacceptable.

But the king surely knows that:

# Israel has no interest in "occupying" the Palestinians. That's been the stance of every premier from Rabin to Netanyahu. It is the Palestinians who have prolonged the "occupation" by rejecting generous offers to end the conflict (the latest proffered by Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni at the end of 2008).

# The Arab initiative, as it stands, is a fatally flawed take-it-or-leave-it diktat. Too bad, then, that just last week, Jordan denied it had agreed to a reported Obama administration suggestion that it spearhead efforts to make the plan more palatable.

# The Palestinians are hardly ready - today, right now - for total sovereignty. They are violently divided between the West Bank and Gaza. Fatah itself is polarized between generational factions. Palestinian political institutions are, shall we say, embryonic.

Stampeding the creation of a militarized "Palestine" would endanger both Israel and Jordan (a majority of whose population is Palestinian).

The good news is that moderate Jordan can play a vital role in fostering peace. We don't mean via such Abdullah platitudes as - "We are offering a third of the world to meet them with open arms" - but by working to narrow the differences between the parties. For no one understands the dynamics of Palestinian polity or appreciates the geostrategic lay of the land west of the Jordan River better than the king.

Rather than expecting Obama to deliver Israel prostrate, the king needs to lobby the Arab League for essential improvements to its plan: removing unrealistic demands for a total Israeli pullback to the hard-to-defend 1949 Armistice Lines; dropping their insistence on a Palestinian "right of return" to Israel proper - no more than a mechanism for demographically asphyxiating Israel; and adding a necessary plank committing the League to recognizing the legitimate rights of the Jewish people to self-determination.

The king does an excellent job of making the Arab position seem reasonable. But he could better advance the cause of peace by helping to make it reasonable in practice.

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