Jordan’s King Abdullah II warns Mideast peace prospects are dim


Jordan's King Abdullah speaks with President Obama in May. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The failure of U.S. and international efforts to rekindle Middle East peace talks last month has all but doomed chances for a breakthrough in the near future, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said in an interview in which he warned that the failure may cause the outbreak of a new armed uprising in the Palestinian territories.

The monarch, a key U.S. ally and the leader of one of only two Arab countries to sign peace treaties with Israel, said the Jewish state’s increasingly conservative political climate has rendered its government incapable of making the kinds of meaningful concessions needed for peace.

And he said he feared that the United States is distracted by its economic woes and leery of wasting political capital.

“2011 will be, I think, a very bad year for peace,” Abdullah told The Washington Post in the wide-ranging 45-minute interview at his palace in the Jordanian capital. “Although we will continue to try to bring both sides to the table, I am the most pessimistic I have been in 11 years.”

The king said the tumult surrounding the Arab Spring movement had opened a unique window to a possible peace deal, an opportunity that the two sides have failed to seize. The window will soon close, he warned.

As the situation drags on, he said, Israel will inevitably find itself surrounded by increasingly hostile Arab governments as politicians in newly democratic states seek to exploit popular resentments. At home, meanwhile, the country will face a growing risk of revolt as Palestinians abandon hope of a peaceful path toward statehood.

“When there’s a status quo, usually what shakes everybody up is some sort of military confrontation, at which point we all come running and screaming to pick up the pieces,” he said.

Abdullah’s gloomy assessment comes less than a month after a diplomatic visit to Washington in which he pressed President Obama privately to take bold steps to jump-start peace talks. Obama, in a major policy speech May 22, called on both sides to negotiate a two-state solution based on pre-1967 boundaries with adjustments to accommodate large Jewish settlements on the Palestinian side of the dividing line.

Two days later, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu all but dismissed Obama’s initiative in a speech to the U.S. Congress, calling the 1967 boundaries “indefensible.”

A separate peace initiative launched by France in recent weeks also appeared to have foundered, as Israeli officials declined to endorse a proposal for a new round of talks in Paris over the summer.

Both the Israeli government and the White House, meanwhile, have criticized the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank for entering into a “unity” agreement with the armed Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

The West Bank and Gaza represent the two main territories comprising a future Palestinian state, and Arab governments have urged Hamas and Fatah, which holds sway in the West Bank, to set aside their differences and work toward that goal.

But Hamas continues to refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist and is regarded by many Western states as a terrorist organization. Netanyahu has ruled out talks with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, and the Obama administration has demanded that the movement renounce violence and accept Israel’s right to exist before it can be allowed to participate fully.

Abdullah, 49, who has led the kingdom of 6.4 million since 1999, has launched a campaign to restart the peace talks. He has been meeting with dozens of leaders throughout the region and laying out a vision for a peaceful Middle East in a book, “Our Last Best Chance,” which he penned last year just as the final round of U.S-brokered peace talks was beginning to falter.

Since then, Abdullah says, the outlook has grown increasingly dim and violence, and chaos appear inevitable.

“If it’s not a two-state solution, then it’s a one-state solution,” he said. “And then, is it going to be apartheid, or is it going to be democracy?”

If the Israelis opt for full rights for Palestinians, they will be outnumbered by burgeoning Arab populations within a decade. If not, he said, Israelis will soon see more clashes like those that erupted during protests last month by Palestinians. They were commemorating the anniversary of al-Naqba, or the catastrophe, a reference to the 1948 war. Twelve Palestinians were fatally shot by troops as they moved toward Israeli border positions.

“I think it’s going to come again,” Abdullah said of Palestinian unrest. “A lot of Arabs are saying, ‘Okay, if you’re talking about democracy for us, what about democracy [in] Israel?’ ”

The king said he feared that the United States was losing its credibility among Arabs as an arbiter in the dispute, partly because of successive failures by Washington to broker a deal, but also because of a record of unshakable U.S. support for Israel regardless of its policies toward Arabs.

“When you get billions in aid and your weapons resupplied and your ammunition stock resupplied, you don’t learn the lesson that war is bad and nobody wins,” Abdullah said.

Meanwhile, with little significant U.S. pressure, Israelis have embraced increasingly conservative policies. “I think you have the right and the hard right in Israeli,” he said, “and everybody has moved by so many degrees.”

Joby Warrick joined the Post’s national staff in 1996. He has covered national security, intelligence and the Middle East, and currently writes about the environment.

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