Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Nicola Lombardozzi
la Repubblica
19 October 2009

"In Washington, I heard some voices saying Iran, Iran, Iran. Instead I keep repeating Palestine, Palestine, Palestine. The failure to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and achieve Arab-Israeli peace is the most serious threat to peace and to stability in the region, including in the Mediterranean. That must be the priority. In the beginning there were great hopes. But now the horizon seems to moving farther away." This is what King Abdullah said on the eve of his visit to Italy.

His line of reasoning is likely to dampen any expectation of a swift regional solution, according to the timeline and the methods formulated by US President Obama. Moreover, if one then inquires on His Majesty's sensitive relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has already dealt politically at the beginning of his reign in 1999, he is very straightforward: "My first experience was not a very pleasant one. We had major crisis between Jordan and Israel, the worst since the peace process. When we met in this office last May, sitting right here, the Israeli Prime Minister he made promises of pursuing peace: but since then Israel has not moved on those promises."

Therefore, on the eve of his state visit to Italy, King Abdullah is cautious: "I will trade notes with our Italian friends. I will engage with the Italian government, as part of the European Union, on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We are interested in coordinating on mega projects that we are about to launch in Jordan, in construction, in alternative energy, water conveyance, rail roads and other projects worth about $20 billion over the coming 10 to 15 years."

And here is the young monarch, leader of the moderates of the Arab world, always on the front line in striving for peace. As a member of the Hashemite dynasty, he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Sporting a blue blazer, he receives la Repubblica in his study in a pretty Arab palace on top of a hill above the city.

la Repubblica: Your Majesty, after seven missions by President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, America and Israel don't seem to have reached an understanding. Are you disappointed?

King Abdullah: I'll be honest - I was expecting more, and more quickly. President Obama, in the first 24 hours of his mandate, called for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I was expecting more of a dramatic breakthrough in early summer, and stronger showing at the United Nations, last month, with a true launch of the peace negotiation. But there has definitely been a delay. The issue of Israeli settlements, which the international community considers illegal, continues to be the outstanding issue. We are all asking for a freeze, even if temporary, so that you can get Israelis and Palestinians to the table. I don't understand why Israel is pursuing this settlement policy. If it really believes in a two-state solution, then it knows that those settlements inside the Palestinian territories will become Palestinian property. Stopping the settlements is vital as proof that Israel's commitment to peace is sincere. Actually, the interpretation across the Arab world is that Israel does not want peace.

la Repubblica: On October 26, it will be 15 years since the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. Is it real peace?

King Abdullah: It is a cold peace, and our relationship is getting colder. To make matters worse, there is Jerusalem. There is an attempt to change the political aspect, as we start to see Israelis encroaching on East Jerusalem, which is part of Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. You can't change realities on the ground while negotiations are ongoing. I told Prime Minister Netanyahu: Jerusalem is of tremendous importance for Jordan, this is a red line that can not be crossed. Even more so regarding the issue of the Mosque.

la Repubblica: What is at stake in that issue?

King Abdullah: Why continue with the works and excavations when our documentation shows that they could undermine the foundations of the al-Aqsa Mosque? The sanctity of Jerusalem must be understood, as well as the potential for turning Jerusalem into a tinderbox. Why increase activities, with the risk of inflaming passions, at this critical time? Those actions are extremely provocative, not only to the Muslims but also to the Christians.

la Repubblica: Would you please explain, Your Majesty?

King Abdullah: The Hashemite Kingdom, as even acknowledged by the peace treaty (with Israel), is responsible for both Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. This is a tremendous responsibility that I inherited from His Majesty, the late King Hussein. We must protect property in Jerusalem that is undermined, slowly taken over by the municipality or the Israeli government. Yet Jerusalem should be a symbol of harmony, of peace between the three monotheistic faiths. A city closed to the any of the followers of the three monotheistic religions is a catastrophe.

la Repubblica: Netanyahu prefers, at present, an “economic peace” and he invites the Arab world to come and invest. Should the Arab world respond?

King Abdullah: How can you have an economic peace when there is no political security for the future of the Palestinians? It seems like we are always sidestepping the issue. We need to have a two-state solution, and this is what we are waiting for.

la Repubblica: Why does Jordan consider the two-state solution an issue of national security?

King Abdullah: Because, without that, the whole region will never enjoy the peace and stability it deserves. It is the ideal solution within a comprehensive peace - it solves the problem between the Israelis and the Arabs and Muslims.

la Repubblica: What if there was a one-state solution, as some are arguing?

King Abdullah: I hear discussion again, in Israeli and Palestinian circles alike, about a one-state solution, should the other one fail. But Palestinians deserve their state.

la Repubblica: There is also talk about the hypothesis of delegating to Jordan control over the West Bank.

King Abdullah: Unacceptable. If Israel wants to make Jordan Palestine, it would mean removing the Palestinians of the West Bank into Jordan. Let us assume, by pure hypothesis, that Israel achieves that, against international condemnation. Would it solve the problem for the future of Israel? Not at all, because the Israeli Arab population in Israel, in a few years, will be 50 percent of the Jewish state of Israel. So again you don't solve the problem. In addition, Arabs and Muslims would not accept that. Therefore, what is needed is a much broader vision, a comprehensive peace with 57 nations, (note by the editor: from the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference), a third of the world, that don't recognise Israel.

la Repubblica: And what if that doesn't happen?

King Abdullah: If the status quo were maintained, it would mean sliding into darkness, with all the imaginable consequences.

la Repubblica: Which ones?

King Abdullah: I think the window of hope is very limited, because as we go into 2010, if Israel does not believe in a two-state solution, the future of a Palestinian state is under fire, geographically: the territory is already fragmented into cantons. If we find ourselves, a year or two from now, still asking the same questions, then I fear that our generation will not see peace.

la Repubblica: So, what should be done?

King Abdullah: It would be up to America and Europe: We need courage from the Israeli politicians to sit down with the Palestinians, under very strong cover from the US President and very strong support from Europe, to move the process forward. It must decide: either integrate itself in the whole Arab/Muslim world, or continue to stay fortress Israel and live with all the calamities that this will bring not only to it but to all of us. At present Israel is digging a deeper and deeper hole.

la Repubblica: Still, there is the obstacle of Hamas, the divisions between Palestinian factions. How do they affect the peace process?

King Abdullah: We support Egyptian efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah. America and Europe decide their own policies. But we must recognise the urgency of the situation, the huge price we will all pay if we do not move forward. We must also recognise that there is a human catastrophe in Gaza that the international community has to move faster to end the blockade.

la Repubblica: The West, at present, seems more focused on the negotiations with Iran. For the first time in thirty years, Washington and Teheran are talking. Would it be better for the Middle East?

King Abdullah: It is a development that I welcome strongly. The alternative to dialogue is conflict and we don't need one with Iran. And this is a concern. What is to be seen is if the dialogue bears fruit. Let's keep our fingers crossed and see what happens.

la Repubblica: Would you regard an Iran armed with atomic weapons as a major threat?

King Abdullah: Our position has always been against any nuclear proliferation in the whole region. But the challenge is the ambiguity of nuclear power, regarding many countries. The nuclear capabilities and programs of each nation should be declared, openly.

la Repubblica: Are you referring to Israel?

King Abdullah: To Israel and all other nations. Jordan itself is embarking on a peaceful nuclear energy program, but we want to be the model of total transparency. We are planning on a peaceful nuclear energy programme that will enable us not just to be self sufficient but also to be a regional energy provider.

la Repubblica: Your Majesty, you are part of a new group of young leaders; you ask for results within this generation. Will that happen?

King Abdullah: Well, some define me as young; but I am 47 years old and getting on in age. And I have to remember that 70 percent of my country is younger than me. It has a right to peace and prosperity. Therefore, yes, I am in a hurry. The future is now.

la Repubblica: Was the Nobel prize awarded to President Obama hurried? Or will it encourage him to strive for peace?

King Abdullah: I have congratulated President Obama on receiving the Nobel Prize. In Jordan, we have greatly appreciated his efforts to strengthen diplomacy and cooperation between people. However, beware: all the positive feelings generated by President Obama's positive messages and gestures will evaporate unless people see real progress on the ground.