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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Marwan Muasher

Jordan's Middleman Thrives in High-Stakes World of Peace, Survival

October 18, 1998|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey

WASHINGTON — This weekend there are many on the sidelines who anxiously await progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But none more so than the Kingdom of Jordan. This virtually landlocked, resource-poor creation of the colonial era is engaged in a perpetual high-wire survival act. Not surprising, given its neighbors: Syria to the north, Iraq to the east and Israel to the west, with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians within and between.

Representing, and in many ways embodying, the complexities of the country is Jordan's man in Washington, Ambassador Marwan J. Muasher. A Christian from an overwhelmingly Muslim country, Muasher, 42 and married with two children, has already served as Jordan's information minister and its first ambassador to Israel. Though the scion of a prominent East Bank Jordanian family, his mother is Palestinian. In fact, her family fled Jaffa during Israel's 1948 war of independence.

Muasher serves at the pleasure of King Hussein, another complicated figure. Hussein succeeded his grandfather, Abdullah, after seeing him cut down by an assassin in 1951--for consorting with the Israelis. Yet the pro-Western Hussein held numerous clandestine meetings with Israeli leaders over many decades, seeking to make peace. The stumbling block was always the fate of the Palestinians.

Palestinians comprise roughly 60% of Jordan's population. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein claimed leadership of the Arab world, in part on behalf of the Palestinian cause, they flocked to his banner. This forced the king into an unhealthy embrace of the megalomaniacal Iraqi leader.

But the ever-resourceful king saw in Iraq's defeat opportunities for Jordan. Even if he had alienated his financial backers, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, not to mention his American friend, President George Bush, he was aware that the Palestinians, too, were bereft of support. When Washington triumphantly proclaimed a new era in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, King Hussein enthusiastically signed on.

At 35, Muasher became spokesman for the Jordanian delegation to the peace talks. He was present on Oct. 26, 1994, when King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed their historic peace treaty, both clearly relishing the moment. Unlike the "cold," correct peace with Egypt and the fighting and negotiating that characterize Israel's relationship with the Palestinians, the Jordanian peace was what the Israelis had always said to be their fondest wish. Bridges were opened, tourism and trade encouraged, joint economic projects planned and developed.

As Jordan's ambassador to Israel, Muasher was with Rabin at the Tel Aviv peace rally on Nov. 4, 1995, when the Israeli leader was assassinated. Joining the Egyptian ambassador at the rally, he left the area literally moments before Rabin was killed. Rabin's death, and the defeat of his Labor Party by hard-liners led by Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, awakened fears about the future of the Israeli-Jordanian relationship.

In this period of increasing mistrust, Muasher was sent to Washington, where he has, by all accounts, thrived. He relishes the chaos of Washington-style diplomacy. While diplomatic colleagues dutifully troop to Foggy Bottom to receive official briefings, Muasher joins a regular poker game with State Department card sharks. Like any ambassador, he escorts senior Jordanian officials to meet with prominent senators, but he also drops by the cramped Capitol Hill offices of their key aides.

Before a conversation last week, Muasher's secretary checked to see if he was engaged in one of his favorite pastimes, surfing the Internet--understandable for a PhD in computer engineering from Purdue University. The interview took place in Muasher's modest office in the Jordanian embassy in Washington--just up the road from the Israeli embassy.

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Question: How is it that a peace process that was so promising now seems in continual danger of collapsing?

Answer: Part of it is a question of trust. The level of trust that was built with Prime Minister Rabin allowed both sides to make the necessary concessions and to move forward, even if there was violence along the way. That trust has eroded, of course, after a more hard-line government. . . . We are now engaged in negotiating details that, I think, should have been resolved a long time ago.

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Q: You say it's a hard-line government. You were ambassador to Israel in 1995 and '96, so you know many officials personally, including Prime Minister Netanyahu. How did he impress you then?

A: Yes, I did meet with him as ambassador, and I knew he was totally opposed to the agreements worked out between the previous government and the Palestinians. After he became prime minister, he had to adjust his views to the realities on the ground. But we understand that he does not govern alone, that he governs through a coalition in which many people are ideologically opposed to the present course.

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