Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Jay Solomon
The Wall Street Journal
06 April 2010

WSJ: When you meet with the president, what is your message as far how to get the peace process going? Do you want the U.S. to come in and say: These are the parameters; let's get going; we're wasting too much time?

King Abdullah: I think wasting too much time is something that we all have to be very concerned about because there is tremendous tension in the region. Over the Israeli-Lebanese border; if you spoke to some Lebanese today they feel there is going to be a war any second. It looks like there is an attempt by certain groups to promote a third intifada, which would be disastrous. Jerusalem as you are well aware is a tinderbox that could go off at any time, and then there is the overriding concern about military action between Israel and Iran.

So with all these things in the background, the status quo is not acceptable; what will happen is that we will continue to go around in circles until the conflict erupts, and there will be suffering by peoples because there will be a war. On the U.S. side, obviously, American domestic politics has been a priority for the administration and I think that's very well understood. The economic challenges have also not helped in prioritizing the peace process. Having said that I know very well that Obama and his administration are extremely committed to the two-state solution and moving the process forward. But they've had other things to deal with on their shoulders. The problem is what happens over the next couple of months. ...

The job of Jordan and the other countries in the international community is to keep common sense and keep hope alive until America can bring its full weight on the Israelis and the Palestinians to get their act together and move the process forward. I hope the American administration is gearing to come down and put very strong parameters to move the process forward.

Again, we're not starting from scratch: Everyone knows pretty much what needs to be done. We lost some valuable ground in the last 12 months on the issue of settlements. What we want to happen is for final status talks to focus on territory because that will start to unravel a lot of the other problems. But that needs America's full commitment because at the end of the day there is a realisation by all of us that without America's full commitment to, for lack of a better word, pressure Israelis and Palestinians to the peace table, negotiations will not take off. There needs to be a timeline and expectations and benchmarking by both sides.

We're sort of the power brigade … us and other countries, trying to see where issues of contention between Israelis and Palestinians and make the atmosphere more amiable. With the background that evil does not sleep. There are those out there on all sides unfortunately, rejectionists, I think that's maybe a good term to use these days, who will do everything they can to spoil the future of Israelis and the Palestinians.

WSJ: Considering the history between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and you and your father, do you think he can deliver in the peace process?

King Abdullah: I think the overlap that happened between me and Prime Minister Netanyahu 10 or 11 years ago was not very pleasant. It was actually the three most unpleasant months in the relationship between Jordan and Israel. I met Benjamin Netanyahu; he was sitting here this time last year. I was extremely optimistic by the vision he had for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Arabs. However, I have to say that over the past 12 months, everything I've seen on the ground has made me extremely skeptical, and I'm probably one of the more optimistic people you will meet in this part of the world. And therefore, there's been a lot of words, but the actions on the ground have made me extremely concerned about how straightforward Israeli policy is. And at the same time we have continued provocations in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Jerusalem specifically engages Jordan because we are the custodians of the Muslim and Christian holy places and this is a flashpoint that goes beyond Jordanian-Israeli relations. This is something that could ignite Muslim frustration and anger, which we do not need today. So there are elements that are playing with fire and so, this has been an uphill struggle for the past couple of months. And unfortunately, for the first time since my father made peace with Israel, our relationship with Israel is at an all bottom low. It hasn't been as bad as it is today and as tense as it is today.

WSJ: What is your message when you meet with the Israelis?

King Abdullah: I think the long-term future of Israel is in jeopardy unless we solve our problems. Fifty-seven countries in the world, a third of the United Nations, do not recognise Israel. In a way, I think North Korea has better international relations than Israel. So when you look at the Arab-Islamic peace proposal what you are talking about is 57 nations reaching out to Israel for a long-term future. In America specifically, you hear, well, why doesn't Jordan take the Palestinians into our country? … That would create tremendous instability. So if the Israelis want to push the Palestinians into Jordan, I don't see how that makes sense and how the international community will accept that because that would be an exodus of 1.8 million Palestinians from their homes into Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. And that would bring even more instability on their borders. But it still does not solve their long-term problem ... because the Arab-Israeli population in Israel proper, in eight to ten years, will be 50% of Israel. The Israelis have a major challenge on the future of their existence.

Wouldn't it be better today when you're in a stronger position to make peace not only with your neighbours but with the whole Arab-Islamic world than kicking this problem down the road two or three years where your options become reduced? And there are Israelis out there that understand this and are reaching out. They are very concerned. And friends of Israel around the world, of whatever religious background, that also see this calamity being created and are very concerned. America has a saying it's been using; it's time for a bit of tough love for all of us to get this problem solved.

WSJ: How different does the language from the Obama administration look from here? Some Arab and Palestinian leaders I talked to are describing the conflict as a national security threat to the U.S., which seems to be a shift that is driving this tough love.

King Abdullah: It's not a shift. If you look at military and intelligence positions from the 1950s, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been against American national interests. What has happened is that President Bush finally came out and said that the future has to be a two-state solution. And President Obama took it one step forward and said what has been known by all of us for decades: Unless you solve this problem, the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian problem and therefore the Israeli-Arab Muslim problem affects the direct national interest of the United States. I don't think that's gone down to the think tanks and politicians; they don't see it that way. But the generals and the intelligence officers and senior political leaders do realise that unless you solve this problem … I mean, you are involved in two wars in our region.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is the core issue and this is the problem we have with American decision-makers. It's always been a challenge of connecting the dots. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is used by everyone who has an axe to grind against the West. So resolving this problem does not mean that this evil will evaporate, but definitely, it will take a big chunk out of the challenges that we have in this region.

WSJ: This kind of division between the U.S. and Israel, does it make you nervous at all in the sense that Israel could take actions on its own that would really prove destabilizing?

King Abdullah: I personally think that Israel has a tendency to take action on its own anyway. But obviously when there is tension between any countries, the atmosphere is never conducive to moving people forward, so I look forward to the Israelis and Americans improving their relations but based on the national security interests of both the Israelis and Americans, which is solving this problem.

WSJ: When you talk about Jordanian-Israeli relations at a low, it's just because there has not been that trust on this issue?

King Abdullah: The political trust is gone, there is no real economic relationship between Jordan and Israel, for Israeli businessmen to get into Jordan he takes a visa that day; it is almost impossible for Jordanian businessmen to enter Israel. So economically we were better off in trade. I mean, obviously there was the golden period of the wonderful relationship between my father and Prime Minister Rabin, and after the death of PM Rabin, again there was a resurgence with PM Barak, but it's just been a decline since then.

WSJ: President Obama came with such high hopes and such affection for him globally. How do you think he's doing? The standoff with Netanyahu could be either a sign of strength or weakness depending how you look at it.

King Abdullah: We all knew that whatever the policies of President Obama would be, whether Middle East, health care, economy, there was such an over-expectation of the president that it has been unfairly challenging for him to deal with these issues. ... The challenge now, and the challenge I have in discussions with Arab and Muslim leaders, is the question of U.S. credibility. The credibility of the whole peace process is at an all-time low because expectations were so high, maybe unfairly high.

Obama is being tough on the issue of settlements, but again the American public (needs to see that) it's not just Obama; you've got to realise the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese and the international community are very frustrated with Israel politics. So again when I talk to the American public, you can't just hold President Obama in isolation because he is showing displeasure …

Remember you don't do anything in isolation. The extremists around are saying, hey look, nothing is happening, dialogue does not work, communicating with the Israelis is not the way to go forward, the idea of resistance, the spread of fear and hatred is the message they put forward, is the way to go. Even in the Arab Summit in Libya, you had to be careful where some countries were hinting, how long are we going to give you moderates a chance to peruse peace. Because really, look everybody, their way of doing it is not right.

WSJ: Are you really worried that a third intifada or more violence in Jerusalem might break out?

King Abdullah: There are elements that are actively pushing for a third intifada. There are heightened tensions. Gaza, as you've been seeing, is not all that stable. Jerusalem is a time bomb that I fear is just waiting to go off. Those are the things we see on the ground and then there's the overriding problem in the background of what happens if Israel hits Iran, and then action, reaction. It's a Pandora's box.

WSJ: What do you think when you look at Iran and international policy. There's a lot of talk now about how active Iran is in Iraq as far as trying to push their political clients. Do you see it active in Hezbollah/Lebanon? In the Palestinian territories? Is the engagement track working?

King Abdullah: Again, I look at it from a different angle. If there are those that are saying that Iran is playing mischief, then I say it is being allowed to play mischief. The platform they use is the injustice of the Palestinians and Jerusalem. So if you start taking those cards off the table, then Iranian influence on the Mediterranean through Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza diminishes or becomes non existent. My view is that I am really against any military action in Iran, that is Pandora's box. But by dealing with the core issue, that's when you start taking cards away from the Iranian regime.

WSJ: Do you think that President Obama gets that?

King Abdullah: Absolutely. I am very, very comfortable with the understanding of the intricacies that Obama showed me in my meeting with him last year. Obviously, Secretary of State Clinton and General Jones and Senator Mitchell also understand that.

WSJ: Are you optimistic about Iraq, seeing how things are going there?

King Abdullah: I am optimistic about Iraq because I believe in the Iraqi people and the vision of their nation to move forward. Now whether that happens in one year, 10 years or 15 years depends on a lot of influences we see. But I've described Iraq as a slow, steady pace towards the light. I believe that we as Arab countries have been negligent in not standing with the Iraqis more. I understand that Arab countries sometimes don't know how to deal with Iraq. But I think this is a new phase in their lives with this new election and we should be there for them. I'm optimistic and I believe in the national spirit of the Iraqis.

WSJ: Can you give a sense of what else you are hoping to achieve in the U.S.? You will have business meetings?

King Abdullah: In the old days I used to go and we used to arrange a breakfast or lunch and say Jordan's a great country, come visit. And we've been much more effective recently by targeting major corporations and saying here's your opportunities in Jordan, here's what we are willing to provide and here's the market.

WSJ: Do you think the fact that you also have this kind of this bigger vision to address the bigger challenges to Jordan, i.e. water, power.

King Abdullah: I think the mega-projects make a big difference because a lot of countries want to get involved in the mega projects, but from my limited economic experience, the mega projects, you don't actually see the railroad being done, the nuclear power plant, the Red-Dead Canal, although these are going to be tremendous in infrastructure and in positioning Jordan. It's sort of the IT companies, big business coming in where the private sector sees and gets energised and excited. So the buzz of the country is those companies setting up in Jordan, more than the mega projects although the mega projects are major and essential for the future of Jordan.

I am saying the mega projects have tremendous interest from companies and corporations because these are huge billion-dollar deals. But we don't see them in the newspaper the way you do when Yahoo sets up or when Google sets up.

WSJ: Are there any other things in the US-Jordanian bilateral relationship that you are focusing on? In counterterrorism there has been a lot of cooperation?

King Abdullah: In Afghanistan we've been asked to send more medical and combat engineers to help rebuild the country and this is something we are trying to negotiate with the Afghan government: How do we support the Afghans in transforming their lives. There has been interest from the European Union and the US to bring Afghan police and soldiers to be trained here. We have excellent facilities and we've had tremendous experience doing it with Palestinians and Iraqis. So Jordan is playing a more vital role in stability building in Afghanistan as a Muslim nation reaching out to help the development of another Muslim nation. I'm very excited and proud of that.

WSJ: How many soldiers are in Afghanistan?

King Abdullah: We've got a couple of hundred at the moment. It's a field hospital and support elements and a combat engineers. Maybe transportation assets. Maybe a couple of hundred more will be sent to help in rebuilding the nation ... I am actually going to Washington to discuss what is our commitment.

WSJ: One factor in all of this, and no one can really see where we are headed, is Syria…How is Jordan's relationship with Syria and how do you see that?

King Abdullah: Jordan's relationship with Syria is better than it has been in a long time; probably the best it's ever been ... so the engagement now between the Syrian and Jordanian government on economic cooperation are at an all-time high. The Israeli-Syrian issue is obviously high on their priority list.

WSJ: The message you get from Syria is they're ready to talk?

King Abdullah: Yes, they are ready to talk but again I think everyone is still trying to decide what this Israeli government is all about. The rhetoric is positive, but actions on the ground show us something completely different, so there is frustration from Syria towards Israel.