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Israel's Gaza offensive stokes anger among Jordan elite

Public protests against Israel have grown larger, and officials of the staunch U.S. ally have strongly criticized the Jewish state and begun to hedge their bets diplomatically.

January 14, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

AMMAN, JORDAN — The boutique sells designer outfits, but the agitated talk among the women in fur coats and leather go-go boots is about politics, specifically Israel's war in the Gaza Strip.

"Everyone around here hates Israel," says Dana Abu Zannnad, the anger rising in her voice. The 31-year-old Jordanian homemaker and her husband, a wealthy businessman, are among the country's new jet set. They speak English, shop at deluxe malls and travel abroad, many on earnings resulting from Jordan's status as a jumping-off point for Iraq reconstruction projects.

"My husband told me that if there was a war with Israel, he would go and fight," she says.

Even among Jordan's elite, advocates of peace are in short supply these days, supplanted by newly radicalized members of the middle and upper-middle classes, wearing Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, urging the government to take a harder line against Israel, as well as its primary patron, the United States.

Analysts say decisions by some so-called moderate Arab states to hedge their bets against what had been unflagging support for the U.S. and its Palestinian ally, Fatah, began months ago after officials perceived that a weakened America was betraying allies in Lebanon, Pakistan and Georgia.

The hedging has intensified as the Gaza conflict rages on, with top Jordanian officials making strong statements against Israel, allowing rare, raucous demonstrations of tens of thousands of people and granting leeway to such opposition groups as the local branch of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

From King Abdullah II on down, Jordanians, more than half of them of Palestinian descent, widely fear that instead of reaping long-term rewards for helping stabilize Iraq and counter Iran's regional aspirations, their country will be forced to deal with shattered hopes for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process it has supported for more than a decade.

Jordan has hoped a Palestinian state would quell festering radicalism among Arab youths that fuels the growth of militant groups such as Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic organization that seized control of Gaza in 2007 and opposes moderate Arab states that support Fatah, its archrival.

"We were promised very clearly that there would be a two-state solution by the end of the year," Salah Bashir, Jordan's foreign minister, said in an interview Monday. "This chaos in Gaza actually nullifies the investment that the U.S., Europe and every peace-loving nation in the world has put into the peace process."

The Israeli military reported Tuesday that gunmen opened fire on an army patrol along the 137-mile border between the two nations. The Jordanian military said no such incident had occurred.

Israel's border with Jordan is its longest international frontier, and the 1994 peace treaty is one of the key security arrangements for both countries, which fought each other in 1948 and 1967.

No officials have spoken of breaking ties with Israel, and Jordan continues to receive hundreds of millions of dollars a year in U.S. security and economic support. Bashir said Amman remains steadfastly committed to peace with Israel as well as to the two-state solution signed on to by Israel, the U.S. and Europe, as well as Arab states.

But on the streets of Amman, the capital, demonstrations against Israel, Egypt and Fatah, which is headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, have been growing in scale, with riot police battling protesters trying to attack the Israeli Embassy here Friday.

The recent outbursts of public anger show that the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama has its work cut out for itself in seeking to unravel years of mixed signals and hardening opinions.

Obama will seek to win the trust and bolster the prospects of Arab moderates amid the rising tide of anti-American populism stoked not only by Iran, Syria, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Hamas, but also by the actions of Israel.

"There's a strong argument out there that goes, 'Why not join the resistance?' " said Taher Masri, a former prime minister and foreign minister who serves in the Jordanian senate. " 'You tried the peace process for 20, 30 years, and you got nothing but more settlements and more checkpoints. Let me try my way. Let's try resistance.' "

He added, "It's gaining ground."

During the first week of the Gaza conflict, Jordan's lawmakers, many of them handpicked by the country's U.S.-funded security forces, burned the Israeli flag in the parliament, to roaring applause from their colleagues. During the second week, a half-page full-color photograph of an Israeli flag burning at a massive protest march appeared on the front page of the newspaper Al Ghad.

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