- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

AMMAN, Jordan Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher has a message for his "good friends" in Washington: The United States will find little support for its plans to remake the Middle East if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not addressed quickly.

Rising resentment of Washington's unflinching support of Israel has eroded trust for U.S. actions in Iraq and could derail legitimate efforts to bring democratic reforms to the Arab world, Mr. Muasher said in an interview Sunday.

"The number one issue we all feel in the region needs to be addressed is the Arab-Israeli conflict," he said. "There is nothing that will ease the pressure in the region other than this."

Speaking in plain and passionate terms about democracy, human rights and the likelihood of another Iraq war, Mr. Muasher said he worries that U.S. officials do not fully grasp the implications of their policies.

"People expect international legitimacy to prevail also in the Arab-Israeli conflict, not just in Iraq. To have an American presence in Iraq and an Israeli presence in the West Bank, and to keep these two crises alive, this is going to be catastrophic," Mr. Muasher said. "Not just serious efforts, but serious results, have to be expected on the Arab-Israeli front."

Jordan, a constitutional monarchy with close economic ties to the United States and Europe, has long suffered from a unique political vulnerability in the Middle East.

Washington is its No. 1 trading partner, with significant investment and vital free-trade agreements, not to mention $450 million in foreign aid. But Iraq is almost as important, supplying nearly all Jordan's oil under a U.N.-approved deal. Much of that oil is free or bartered for Jordanian goods.

The kingdom can ill afford to alienate either government, nor can it ignore popular sentiment opposing another attack on Iraq.

"Jordan is walking a tightrope," said Mr. Muasher, 46.

With an Iraq war looming on Jordan's eastern border and a chronic conflict on the West Bank, the kingdom has become a reluctant harbor for refugees. More than 40 percent of the population is made up of Palestinians, who deeply resent Israel and its sponsors.

In the past decade, more than 300,000 Iraqis have poured into Jordan, many of them simply overstaying three-month visas to seek new lives under less repression. These immigrants also reject a new war with Iraq.

The unemployment rate is more than 15 percent, and one person in three lives below the poverty line. A war, however short or humane, could drive up the cost of oil, create another flood of refugees and decimate a tourist trade that has fallen precipitously.

Another worry, voiced frequently by Jordanians, is that Israel will use the Iraq war as an excuse to begin another incursion into the West Bank, expelling hundreds or thousands of Palestinians. Despite private assurances and a 1994 peace treaty forbidding the forced transfer of civilians, the Jordanian government is worried.

"We are told by the Americans and the Israelis that we should not be concerned by this," the foreign minister said. "But the lack of a public statement by the Israeli government is a cause for concern."

He urged the Bush administration to compel Israel to accept the timeline and road map to a two-state solution negotiated by the United States, United Nations, Europe and Russia, acting collectively as the "Quartet."

"For our good and the good of the United States, we hope the United States will realize they cannot have two wounds open in the region. They have to move to close both. The international community understands this very clearly," Mr. Muasher said.

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