AMMAN, Jordan — For several weeks now, the salons of Amman have been abuzz with stories about "Zait Gate," an olive oil scandal said to extend from the Israeli-occupied West Bank to the highest echelons in Jordan.
According to stories that have appeared in Arab newspapers on the West Bank, the scandal involves the possibility of corruption on the part of senior officials in the purchase of a huge quantity of olive oil by the Jordanian government for use by the army and other security forces.
Olive oil holds an exalted place in the average Jordanian's diet; in Jordan, zatar and zait (thyme and olive oil) represent something akin to meat and potatoes elsewhere. Consequently, suggestions of impropriety in the provision of oil to the army, another sacrosanct Jordanian institution, has caused a considerable stir.
The Jordanian government, which is widely acknowledged to be one of the most corruption-free in the Arab world, made its first public statement on the question earlier this week.
Meant 'Nothing Wrong'
Marwan Dudin, the minister for occupied territories, told a news conference he believes that "nothing wrong was meant" by officials involved in the sale of the oil, which was purchased from West Bank olive-growing cooperatives.
Dudin conceded that, while "a few people were happy, many people were unhappy" with the way the oil sales were handled. He and the minister of information, Mohammed Khatib, told the news conference that they did not know whether a formal inquiry had been started into the allegations.
Dudin denounced as "demagogic democracy" the first published report, which appeared in the Jerusalem newspaper Al Shaab.
Al Shaab said the Jordanians had imported impure oil and that Jordanian officials, notably some members of Parliament, were making "fortunes at the expense of the farmers of the West Bank."
Hints of Overcharge
There was a strong suggestion that government officials, acting as middlemen for the sale, had charged the Jordanian government considerably more than what the farmers had been paid and pocketed the difference. Jordanian officials and Western diplomats in Amman have said privately that they have confirmed parts of the newspaper's allegations.
According to Dudin, the officials maintain that the difference in the price paid to the farmers and that paid by the government was supposed to be for testing and transportation, but "they deducted more than they ought to."
The allegations of a scandal come at a particularly embarrassing moment for the Jordanians, who have been trying, without much success, to get Western governments to donate funds to a $1-billion development plan for the West Bank of the Jordan River.
Dudin told the news conference that he doubts that Jordan will be able to put more than $60 million or $70 million into the plan in its first year, instead of the $200 million that was budgeted.
Some Western governments have expressed concern about Jordan's ability to maintain the integrity of the plan considering that Israel, not Jordan, has been the legal authority on the West Bank since 1967.
Name Nine Committees
Dudin said the government is appointing nine committees to supervise the plan, eight for the West Bank and one for the Gaza Strip. They are made up of Jordanian government employees who stayed behind after Israeli troops occupied the areas, and part of their function will be a sort of "preliminary watchdog" role, he said.
The allegations also serve to illustrate the continuing friction on the West Bank between Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Newspapers like Al Shaab are considered to be extremely close to the PLO and often reflect its thinking. Jordanian officials charge that the guerrilla organization funds the newspaper outright.
The PLO, which has opposed the West Bank plan because it represents a form of Arab cooperation with Israel, is clearly pleased to see any project involving the West Bank go sour.
Ali Yaish, the publisher of Al Shaab, denied in an interview that the PLO was behind the allegations. He said the paper is "close to the PLO but not influenced by the PLO."