He was known, a quarter-century ago, as the “prince of peace” – the Jordanian royal who played a key role in helping bring about his country’s breakthrough reconciliation with neighbouring Israel, while helping nudge the Palestinians and the Israelis in a similar direction.
But today, Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal is a worried man, and deeply pessimistic about the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to unveil next month.
In an exclusive interview, Prince Hassan told The Globe and Mail that the Middle East is living through a “strongest-takes-all” moment, one that opens the way for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to follow up on his election promise to annex some or all of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since capturing the territory from Jordan in a 1967 war.
Few details are known about Mr. Trump’s proposal for Israel and the Palestinians, which is being drafted by his son-in-law Jared Kushner. On Sunday, the White House said the United States would unveil the first phase of its peace plan at an international conference in Bahrain on June 25 – focusing on how peace could lead to economic prosperity. But Prince Hassan said that Mr. Trump’s moves over the past year – including relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, cutting off funding to Palestinian refugees and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights – pave the way for more aggression, rather than more peace.
“Look at the context. There were three initiatives announced. … There’s almost the writing on the wall, if it was needed, saying ‘The occupied territories will also be annexed,’ ” Prince Hassan said in an interview on the campus of the Royal Scientific Society, an Amman-based research centre he founded.
Israel would not make itself more secure by expanding its borders, he said. “How do you achieve safety by annexing more and more?”
The 72-year-old royal said he was particularly concerned by reports that Mr. Kushner’s proposal would make no mention of the two-state solution – Israel living beside an independent Palestinian state – that has been the basis of every substantive peace effort since the 1993 Oslo Accords. Mr. Kushner, however, is different from previous peacemakers in that he comes from a family that regularly donated money, through its charitable foundation, to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law because they were built on occupied land.
Mr. Kushner’s plan, which is to be revealed after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, is believed to involve an offer of economic aid to the Palestinians in exchange for their agreeing to a deal expected to be lopsided in Israel’s favour. Prince Hassan said such a plan would only encourage those who reject peace talks in favour of armed resistance.
“The less convincing the political offer is, the more grist there is to their particular mill, the more justification for their continuing to resist,” Prince Hassan said, pointing to a recent exchange of deadly fire between Israeli forces and Islamic militant groups based in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas.
Ahmed Majdalani, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization and a confidant of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, recently told The Globe that the Palestinian leadership, which has not been consulted about Mr. Kushner’s coming plan, sees no hope for a peace process mediated by Mr. Trump. Some in Israel, meanwhile, believe that a Palestinian rejection of what Mr. Trump has billed as the “deal of the century” will open the way for Mr. Netanyahu to carry out his election promise to annex some or all of the 121 Jewish settlements Israel has constructed in the West Bank.
“The issue of annexation will be determined by the Trump plan, whatever it will be,” said Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Jordan has a special interest in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. More than two million Palestinian refugees (a number that includes the descendants of those who fled wars in 1948 and 1967) live on its soil, many of them in official “camps” that have grown into cities over the intervening decades. Under its 1994 peace treaty with Israel, Jordan also maintains what the deal describes as a “special role” overseeing the Muslim and Christian holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, which were under Jordanian rule before 1967.
Though he was speaking in a personal capacity – and not on behalf of his nephew, King Abdullah II – Prince Hassan voiced a widely held worry in both the Palestinian Territories and Jordan: that Mr. Trump will attempt to push through a peace deal that the Palestinians will be forced to reject. Prince Hassan said that could shove the region, already roiled by the wars in Syria and Yemen, as well as growing tensions between the United States and Iran, toward even greater instability.
Jordan is in many ways an island alone in the Arab world, hoping to convince the Trump administration to return to the old formula of one state for the Israelis, one state for the Palestinians. Western diplomats, who were granted anonymity so that they could speak freely about the topic, told The Globe that other Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are willing to back the Trump-Kushner peace proposal – with Saudi Arabia even willing to pay the lion’s share of the economic aid offered to the Palestinians – in exchange for U.S. support in their growing confrontation with Iran. (Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the main Sunni Muslim powers in the Middle East, while Iran is the leading Shia Muslim state. The two sides back different factions in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.)
King Abdullah travelled in March to Washington, where he met with Mr. Kushner, as well as Vice-President Mike Pence. He returned home seemingly frustrated.
“To me, Jerusalem is a red line, and all my people are with me,” King Abdullah said in an unusually combative speech shortly after the trip. “No one can pressure Jordan on this matter, and the answer will be no. All Jordanians stand with me on Jerusalem. At the end of the day, Arabs and Muslims will stand with us as well.”
King Abdullah also appeared to address a rumour that a peace deal would include mention of Jordan as a de facto Palestinian homeland. “To anyone who speaks about an alternative homeland, the answer is no,” the King said.
Omar Rifai, a former Jordanian ambassador to Israel who now serves as senior adviser to Prince Hassan, said the kingdom was struggling to make its concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian issue heard at a time where much of the focus is on Iran.
Recent weeks have seen a dramatic spike in tensions. The United States announced on May 5 that it was sending an aircraft-carrier group and a squadron of bombers to the region to counteract what the Pentagon said was a “heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations” against U.S. forces and its allies. That was followed a week later by an apparent sabotage attack that damaged four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, another U.S. ally.
“We’re surrounded by new currents, and you have to adapt to them,” Mr. Rifai said. “Iran is number one for everybody right now, but al-Quds is still al-Quds,” he said, using the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
Prince Hassan was heavily involved in the peace effort that allowed for the exchange of ambassadors between Jordan and Israel. His 1993 handshake with Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres paved the way for his brother, King Hussein, to formally sign a peace treaty with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin a year later.
Prince Hassan was then the Crown Prince, first in line for his brother’s throne. He was replaced by his nephew in 1999, just days before King Hussein died after a long battle with cancer.
A fluent Hebrew speaker, Prince Hassan said that while Jordan and Israel have successfully maintained – at a government-to-government level – the formal peace that he helped craft, they had failed to construct the kind of “warm peace” between the Jordanian and Israeli peoples that he and Mr. Peres had envisioned, in large part because the Palestinian issue was never resolved.
Prince Hassan said he was worried the entire concept of international law was collapsing in the wake of Mr. Trump’s March decision to recognize Israel’s 1982 annexation of the Golan Heights. The White House has also pushed other countries to follow its lead in moving their embassies from Tel Aviv – where most countries, including Canada, maintain their diplomatic representation to Israel – to Jerusalem, the eastern half of which Palestinians hope will be the capital of their future state.
“To say to countries, ‘Well if you don’t follow suit, then this will affect your bilateral relations with us’ – as I understand American diplomacy has said – is again polarizing the issue beyond the Arab-Israeli or Arab-Palestinian,” the Prince said in English he perfected while a student at Oxford University.
“It’s not just a question of diplomatic initiatives at a particular moment. Jerusalem is a living, breathing city. How are the people of Jerusalem, whether in their Arab, Christian, Muslim, Jewish provenance, going to live together? The real security issue is the absence of dialogue.”