Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Ghassan Sharbel
Al Hayat
09 November 2009
(Translated from Arabic)

Al Hayat: How do you view the Huthis' infiltration of Saudi land and the ensuing clashes?

King Abdullah: We unequivocally condemn the infiltration of Saudi territory and completely support the Saudis' right to defend their borders, land, and their citizens' safety. And we are confident of our Saudi brothers' ability to protect their land and preserve their security and stability, which is a pillar of security in the entire region.

Al Hayat: Do you think that Saudi security and stability being targeted by the recent events in Yemen and by Al Qaeda?

King Abdullah: We have no fears about Saudi Arabia's security and stability. I believe that under the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Saudi Arabia is able to protect its land, and this is what is being done. Therefore, there's no fear about Saudi stability.

Regarding your question about Al Qaeda and certain parties working against Saudi Arabia, these same parties also work against Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and all Arab states. Al Qaeda has an agenda that targets all Arab states.

Al Hayat: Is there a fear of disintegration of Yemen, or if there is a plan to tear it apart as warden by the Yemeni Foreign Minister?

King Abdullah: There are attempts to do this, but we believe that the Yemeni leadership is in control of the situation, and there are contacts with President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Yemeni government is controlling the situation, and there's Jordanian and Arab political support for our brothers in Yemen and for its stability.

Al Hayat: Were you concerned by President Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that he would not run in the presidential elections, and do you fear the collapse of the Palestinian National Authority?

King Abdullah: President Abbas has tremendous responsibilities - the responsibility of the future of his people - and he is under immense pressure. We're aware of the size of the challenges he's up against, and that we all have had to face with regards Prime Minister Netanyahu's position and the inability to achieve the progress in negotiations that we all have worked for.

President Abbas is a real partner in the peace process and is devoted to serving his people's interests and realising their rights and to peace on the basis of the two-state solution. I understand what President Abbas is going through and his sense of disappointment. We hope to see progress in efforts to launch negotiations on the right basis. We also hope that President Abbas would continue to carry out his duties until we reach a settlement that meets the Palestinian people's aspirations.

We are all disappointed by the lack of progress, and I think Israel had a role to play in embarrassing President Abbas and the Arabs so that negotiations would not be launched and so that the Arabs would find themselves in a position where they would have to say they do not want to negotiate. Then Israel would use the excuse of having no partner.

I have warned more than once that if we don't move towards a solution and if there is no clear and convincing movement, the region will be susceptible to many dangers. The status quo cannot continue because it will lead the region towards the abyss. And if this opportunity is lost and no peace is achieved within a year or two, then I don't think our generation will have peace.

Al Hayat: How can negotiations proceed if there is no settlement freeze?

King Abdullah: The international community considers settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace. We demand they completely stop. The question is, if Israel is really committed to the two-state solution, why build settlements on the land of the future Palestinian state?

We have demanded a halt to all settlement construction and for effective negotiations that would lead to the two-state solution within a regional context that achieves comprehensive peace. We do not want a new peace process because people are tired of an open-ended process that does not achieve results. Unfortunately, that has not happened and the United States was unsuccessful in getting Israel to commit to a settlement freeze.

So, if we want to move forward, there has to be a mechanism to ensure the negotiations are not a way to waste time. And if a settlement freeze is not achieved before the start of negotiations, then there should be written American and international guarantees through the United Nations that stress that the negotiations will address all final status issues, borders, Jerusalem and refugees, and lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital and within a clear time frame.

If this were to happen, and if everyone were to know and commit to the starting point and the end game, and if there was confidence that the negotiations will not be a waste of time and a new endless process where Israel changes realities on the ground in the West Bank and Jerusalem and makes the establishment of a Palestinian state impossible due to the settlement constriction and other measures, then we would have overcome obstacles. But if we maintain the status quo, then we should all expect chaos and more tension.

Al Hayat: Have you discussed this with President Mubarak?

King Abdullah: There is constant coordination with President Mubarak and all Arab states. We all work together and with the Americans and Europeans in order to achieve progress on the ground. And we should not allow the Israeli government to achieve its objectives.

Al Hayat: Do you foresee a Palestinian intifada if the horizon remains blocked?

King Abdullah: If there is no progress, if there is no horizon, I fear for Palestine and the whole region.

Al Hayat: Do you see a serious peace opportunity if we take into consideration the composition of the Netanyahu cabinet?

King Abdullah: The whole world agrees on the need to achieve peace and establish a Palestinian state. The United States considers the establishment of a Palestinian state a strategic American interest; Europe is also committed to this solution. The whole Arab world wants peace, and the Arab Peace Initiative reflects a united Arab position concerning how to achieve comprehensive and lasting peace that ensures real security and stability in the region. It remains for Israel to decide if it really wants peace or not. If it wants peace, then the path is clear: end the occupation and establish an independent and viable Palestinian state on Palestinian national soil within a regional context that leads to full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab Syrian and Lebanese land. This will ensure Israel's security and allow it to build normal ties with all Arab and Muslim states that support the initiative. The ball is in Israel's court, and the inability to achieve peace now is caused by Israeli policies.

I believe there is an opportunity to achieve peace, but the window of opportunity is closing with every day we lose.

Al Hayat: Do you think it is possible to revive the peace process in accordance with international resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative any time soon?

King Abdullah: We have to admit that efforts to revive peace talks are facing tough challenges, and we all feel disappointed by the lack of progress. But we cannot stop working to achieve peace because the alternative to peace is chaos and more conflict and tension. The status quo cannot be tolerated because it means sliding into the abyss. Time is not on our side, and everyone should feel how critical the situation is. Israel should also know that, just like everyone else, it is equally under threat and should take serious steps towards peace. This means stopping all settlement construction and unilateral measures and policies that abort peace efforts. Israel should also enter into effective negotiations that build on what has been achieved and address all final status issues within a specific timeframe and in accordance with adopted references in order to reach the two-state solution as soon as possible. Naturally, the US needs to take a lead role in the negotiations.

Al Hayat: It's been 15 years since the signing of the Jordan- Israel peace treaty. How would you describe peace with Israel?

King Abdullah: I had previously said and will say again that it is a cold peace and it is getting colder. Let us remember here that the peace agreement was signed as part of the effort to achieve comprehensive and lasting regional peace and after the signing of the Oslo accords when there was great hope of reaching a comprehensive solution to the conflict. Without justice for the Palestinian people, the atmosphere will remain charged and peace between people will not be realised.

Al Hayat: There were reports that your plane was in American airspace during the September 11 attacks. What were your impressions and what did you do?

King Abdullah: True, the terrorist act took place while we were on the plane heading to the US. We were over the Atlantic Ocean. And when we landed we could see the horror and extent of the crime. Our position was to condemn this terrorist act and to warn against its consequences and implications.

Al Hayat: To what extent did the attacks change the priorities of Bush and his view of the Arabs and the region?

King Abdullah: I cannot speak on behalf of the United States, but from my point of view, these attacks had a huge impact on US priorities in the region and the world. As you know, the American society's view of the Arabs and Muslims changed. Our main concern at the time was to explain that the terrorists, who carried this and other terror attacks that struck other Arab and Islamic states including Jordan, do not represent Arabs and Muslims nor our religion and its values and teachings. Therefore, it is not right to view more than a billion Muslims through the crimes of a few who are misguided and hateful and do not represent them. We also said that the war on terrorism should not be restricted to the pursuit of terrorists but should also address the causes of tension and end the injustice.

Al Hayat: How would you evaluate your experience with George Bush and his administration?

King Abdullah: Our relationship with the United States is institutional. We had our differences, especially over the priority of the Palestinian cause and Iraq. We use our ties with the US to serve Jordan's interests and those of the Palestinians and to achieve peace. We were in touch with the US Administration during the Bush era, and we always expressed our views and positions very clearly. Like I said, we agreed on some issues and differed on others.

Al Hayat: You were encouraged by the election of Barack Obama. How do you see his experience so far?

King Abdullah: We welcomed President Obama's election and were encouraged and hopeful it would reflect positively on the region and US policies towards the region. I had met President Obama during his campaign and when he visited Amman. He was clearly committed to achieving regional peace and to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There were also very positive signals from the first day he took office, I think, about the type of relationship he wanted with the Arab and Islamic world and about his commitment to regional peace. In fact, Obama's election gave hope of a new phase in US relations with the Arab and Muslim world and even with the rest of the world. We appreciate his keenness to build these ties on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests and look forward to continuing to work with him to achieve comprehensive peace and establish an independent Palestinian state. This should also be translated into tangible results, otherwise all hope will disappear.

Al Hayat: You were the first Arab leader to be received in Washington under the Obama Administration. How was the meeting?

King Abdullah: As you know, I was at the time representing the Arab position - our commitment to achieving comprehensive peace on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative. The meeting was extremely positive, frank and straightforward. We talked extensively about the need to move quickly and effectively to achieve peace and establish an independent Palestinian state, and the need for that to take place within a regional context that leads to comprehensive peace. I was encouraged by what I heard from President Obama. The challenge now is to emerge from this deadlock in peace efforts and to move seriously and quickly towards the solution.

Al Hayat: Can we rightly say that Palestinian disintegration is a result of the departure of President Yasser Arafat, in addition to other causes, of course?

King Abdullah: Arafat led the Palestinian people for many years, and there is no doubt that his absence left a huge vacuum. Regardless of the reasons for Palestinian division, the Palestinian people and their cause suffer the most from it. Therefore, they should achieve reconciliation.

Al Hayat: Did Jordan make an effort to break the siege on Yasser Arafat and with whom?

King Abdullah: Yes, we made intensive political and diplomatic efforts to lift the siege on President Arafat, and we clearly opposed his siege. We did everything we could to help him during that time. We placed everything at the disposal of his doctors and tried our best to meet his needs.

Al Hayat: Your relationship with Hamas has witnessed tense times, then breakthroughs and a return to open channels of communication. Were you shocked by the power of Hamas and its regional choices?

King Abdullah: The issue for us is not "which side is stronger than the other" but how to end the suffering of the Palestinian people and the deprivation, siege and injustice they're subjected to. It is also about how to help them regain their legitimate rights to statehood, independence and peace. There is no doubt that the Palestinians need to be united and to overcome their differences to achieve those rights.

Al Hayat: What is the threat to peace efforts from a continuation of the state of Palestinian division?

King Abdullah: Like I said, the Palestinian people suffer most from this state of division, and therefore efforts must continue to achieve reconciliation. We appreciate and support Egypt's efforts to achieve that objective.

Al Hayat: Do you fear a collapse of the Palestinian Authority or that Hamas will become the sole Palestinian negotiator?

King Abdullah: I fear for the Palestinian people and their rights and interests and the security and stability of the region. The issue is not that of a power struggle but an issue of restoring rights. I have no doubt that the Palestinian Authority is under tremendous pressure, mostly from the occupation and lack of peace. The international community must support the Palestinian National Authority so it can serve the Palestinian people and meet their aspirations for peace. This can be done primarily through pressuring Israel into ending the occupation, siege and suffering and establishing the Palestinian state.

There are currents in Israel that use events in Gaza as a pretext not to withdraw from the West Bank. The truth is that the withdrawal from Gaza was a unilateral decision and undertaken without any coordination. I remember being very angry when it happened, because it seemed as if it was meant to create a problem. Then Gaza was isolated, and so of course things were going to escalate. What happened in Gaza will happen in the West Bank if Israel takes the same approach and creates a virtual prison. But if you move to peace and prosperity, you are not going to have that problem. The Palestinians want what all human being want: to live in freedom, dignity and security in their independent state. They want schools and hospitals and job opportunities and better future for their children. What the world should fear and what Israel should fear is for the status quo to continue, because that would mean catastrophe and not peace.

Al Hayat: Were you surprised by the failure of the Camp David Summit between Clinton, Arafat and Barak?

King Abdullah: There is no doubt that the negotiating conditions were difficult, as you know, and it is true that there was hope that talks would succeed, but there were many challenges and obstacles. Let me add here that there was disappointment; this happens every time we cannot move towards resolving the conflict through the only solution that we believe will last - a two -state solution that guarantees the establishment of an independent viable Palestinian state on Palestinian national soil.

Al Hayat: Ariel Sharon's visit to Al Aqsa Mosque contributed to sparking the second Palestinian intifada that witnessed a high number of suicide attacks. How did you live with those events and their implications?

King Abdullah: Sharon's provocation triggered the explosive situation and raised tensions in the region. It also jeopardised efforts to achieve peace. Unfortunately, we are now witnessing unilateral Israeli measures in Jerusalem that seek to change the identity of the city and threaten its holy sites, whether through excavation work, home demolitions or policies that aim to empty the city of its Arab Christian and Muslim residents. These measures undermine chances of peace and are opposed entirely. Let me reiterate what I said in an interview a few weeks back with an Israeli newspaper: these measures will not only destabilise the relationship with Jordan, but will also create a tinderbox that will have a major flashpoint throughout the Islamic world.

Jerusalem is a red line, and the Israelis should realise the significance of Jerusalem to Arabs, Muslims and Christians and should not play with fire.

We in Jordan will continue to do everything we can to protect Jerusalem. We constantly raise this issue in all our political meetings in major world capitals and international organisations. We warn of the dangers of Israeli measures in Jerusalem and demand that the international community pressure Israel to halt them. We also do practical, on-the-ground work to empower Jerusalemites and help them stay in their city and protect the Christian and Muslim sites that Jordan is responsible for.

Al Hayat: Ariel Sharon took over as prime minister in February 2001, then peace talks were halted. Was it difficult to deal with Sharon on the peace issue?

King Abdullah: Of course the suspension of the peace process and negotiations had many negative consequences. We tried our best to relaunch the peace process. It was a difficult time.

Regardless of who assumes responsibility in Israel, our position is clear: in order to achieve peace there must be an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. This position is well known to the Israelis, and every time Israel refuses to advance towards that solution, things become more complicated and difficult, and the threat to the region increases because failure to achieve peace increases the chances of the situation exploding again.

Al Hayat: Who was more difficult to deal with, Barak or Sharon or Olmert?

King Abdullah: It's not an issue of individuals but policies, and I always say that Israel has to decide if it wants to live in isolation as fortress Israel or it wants peace that ensures real security.