Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Michael Binyon
The Times
18 May 2007

"Iraq is a steady burn: King Abdullah talking to The Times in Petra"

The Times: How do you expect to move the Middle East peace process forward, given the paralysis in Israel and the lack of pressure from the international community?

King Abdullah: "We don't have much choice. The way I put the argument is that you cannot really have true peace in the region unless we solve the core issue, which is the Israeli-Palestinian one. In other words, if there is no future for the Palestinians, how can there be peace between the Israelis and the Arabs and the Israelis and the Muslims?

"Now people can say this is not the right time. You have an end of an administration in the United States, you have got changes in Europe (France, Britain). You have very confused situation in Israeli politics, but the timeline we are looking at is that there is a physical limitation on a future Palestinian state. If you look at issues like (Jewish) settlements and the wall, we might end up with a Swiss cheese on the West Bank. Then it all dawns on us that physically we don't have a Palestinian state to talk about.

"I do not think this is the 1960s or 70s or 80s or 90s where there is another opportunity to launch a process. We have a finite amount of time. Physically there may not be a chance for a future Palestinian state. Therefore do we bring the Middle East to decades more of chaos and violence because without a Palestinian state and a future for the Palestinians how can we have peace between the Israelis and the Arabs and Israelis and Muslims?

"This is why the urgency is now. Is the situation ideal? Far from it. But we have our backs against the wall and I believe that time is running out."

The Times: Did Ehud Olmert (Israel's Prime Minister) take this on board when you met him this week?

King Abdullah: "Israeli politicians understand this. But again with what Israel is going through politically at the moment people are nervous of sticking their heads out. There are always those people who will want to sow confusion. All polls show in Israel and in Palestine that the overwhelming majority of both publics want a negotiated settlement."

The Times: Can Olmert in his weakened state deliver or are we going to have to wait for his successor?

King Abdullah: "If you are in a weakened position, what do you have to lose? He is not the only one in a weak position, I think we all are among the moderates. The only way to move is to move forward. There is the Arab peace proposal on the political side, but also a lot more movement in Jordan and other countries who are reaching out to the publics. We have had Israelis and Palestinians here. There is a conference in Aqaba with large groups of Israelis and Palestinians sitting together and trying to find peace, trying to build a momentum. For the first time the issue of peace has moved from the editorial columns of the Israeli press to the front pages. People are talking about Arab proposals."

The Times: You are planning your first trip to the West Bank?

King Abdullah: "We were supposed to be in the West Bank two days ago but we are having very weird weather. I am hoping if opportunity presents itself, if would be helpful I will go."

The Times: What would you say to (Palestinian President) Mahmoud Abbas?

King Abdullah: "We work on specifics of moving the security plan, trying to resolve problems of funding for the Palestinians. We are trying to move Israelis and Palestinians into a closer atmosphere. We have to create the critical mass to allow them to move forward."

The Times: How concerned about the Fatah-Hamas clashes in Gaza?

King Abdullah: "It is extremely disturbing for all of us. I hope that cooler heads prevail. Arabs and Muslims have realised that this is our last chance. I think it is beginning to dawn on Israelis and Palestinians that this is our last chance. They need to reach out to their brothers and sisters and say: 'We need to take one step back because if this continues we may lose our final opportunity'."

The Times: What about the Americans?

King Abdullah: "We did not embark upon this a year ago without getting a feeling from Europe and the United States how willing they were to step behind efforts to move process forward. I have the commitments from the United States, but again we need to be able to put enough meat on the bone to move forward. Condoleezza Rice has been out here several times. You saw Dick Cheney. All this has been trying to limit the difficulties, remove the hurdles to the Israelis and Palestinians."

The Times: Is Iraq distracting the Americans from peace efforts in the Middle East?

King Abdullah: "The American public is obviously focused on Iraq. I felt this when we spoke to Congress. A lot of people in Congress are not interested in Middle East. The clock is ticking. I believe the Administration is focused and will give enough time and effort behind the peace process, even though they have concerns in Iran and Iraq. As we approach the end of the year, then they will be focused on domestic issues. If we get to the end of the year and have not moved the process forward, we are in trouble."

The Times: How worried are you about the continued violence in Iraq?

King Abdullah: "We are all extremely concerned about what is happening in Iraq. I think the Vice President's (Dick Cheney) trip around the region was aimed at bolstering more support for the Iraqi Government to help them achieve the benchmarks set out for them. We do want them to achieve the benchmarks set out of them. We in Jordan have always been supportive.

"I have to give (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri) al-Maliki the benefit of the doubt at this stage, but the Sunni (Muslim) constituency in Iraq is of great concern to us."

The Times: Is Iran using this as a chance to interfere in Iraq?

King Abdullah: "What we have seen in Iraq is a steady burn. If it was to go to civil war then it would likely be extended beyond the borders. It is a Pandora's Box. All neighbouring countries have vested interests there. How to do you stop outside players getting in?

"We have 750,000 Iraqis in Jordan. I think a major concern for Jordan is if there was an escalation and an exodus of more Iraqis to Jordan would be very damaging. There would be a competition for water. Jordan is a likely destination, as are all bordering countries. All of us around the region have concerns about violence spilling over the border. We have had two terrorist incidents here in the last couple of years from Iraq. If there is an influx of Iraqis refugees, there is a humanitarian role that we have to play. You have to be there to support the people who are suffering. You have to balance the need to be there to help with being vigilant against destabilising your own country."

The Times: Have recent changes in leadership in France and Britain had an impact on the Middle East?

King Abdullah: "I have discussed the region with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. They underlined support for the way Jordan sees things. I do not expect any major shift in policy. I had many discussions with President Chirac. He told us not to expect a major change in French policy. France will continue to play a very strong role in Lebanon.

"There has been a very strong German leadership. I have been pleasantly surprised with the depth of vision of Chancellor Merkel for the Middle East. She has been here. You will have leadership changes in France and Britain, but Germany plays an important role because it is currently the head of the EU. If you are talking about Middle East issues, they are in good hands with the German leadership."

The Times: How serious is the threat of Iran and the danger of a US strike against its nuclear programmeme?

King Abdullah: "I strongly believe that any military action against Iran would be devastating for the region because everything is connected. What we do not need is another crisis. A strike against Iran would be disastrous. You cannot deal with Iran in isolation. Everything is connected. If you hit Iran it would have a ripple effect on Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere."

The Times: Is Jordan going ahead with plans to build two nuclear reactors?

King Abdullah: "We started this two and a half years ago with the Japanese as part of our 10-year national agenda. We need to look at alternative energy sources. We have had a very favourable response. We hope to accelerate programmeme. Jordan will be the example of how to do it right. Other countries in the Middle East without energy resources are talking about it. In Jordan the issue is extremely transparent. We are a very small country. We are looking for the most clean and efficient systems. Having been a soldier I have a phobia about anything called nuclear.

As a result we are looking at the way energy is transported from a nuclear plant. We are not going anywhere near the issue of nuclear enrichment."

The Times: How have your efforts gone to help promote moderate Islamic preachers in Britain?

King Abdullah: "We have been talking to the British Government but I am not as happy as I would like to be on the level of cooperation in supporting moderate Islam. I think that more can be done. Maybe I will just leave it at that. We have been more successful in other countries. We need a knock on the door. It is a long term process. It is not something that is achieved over night. The more there is conflict, the harder it is to put out our arguments. There is a wealth of rhetoric the extremists can exploit. It is a gold mine."