A Fiasco In The Mideast For Everyone But King Hussein

Jordan's King Hussein is one of the Mideast's great survivors. Now, his stock is soaring. His patient diplomacy is gaining increased respect from the U.S., which is tired of the stubborn tactics of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yassir Arafat. Hussein's success in securing the release of the ailing Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas, from an Israeli prison is winning kudos in the region.

The upturn in Hussein's fortunes results from a botched assassination attempt by Israel's Mossad secret service against Khaled Meshal, a Hamas leader, on Sept. 25. Deftly exploiting the situation, Hussein negotiated to exchange Yassin for two Mossad agents arrested in Jordan for poisoning Meshal. "It is clear the King's policy of coexistence with Israel is working. He has shown he can deliver," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies.

The mess weakens both Netanyahu and Arafat. But Hussein is looking stronger. Domestic naysayers can no longer argue that his signature of a 1994 peace accord with Israel has done no good. His partisans might now gain enough seats in the Nov. 4 elections to provide democratic backing for his program of moderate economic and political reform. Hussein may also be able to usher in the "new era of prosperity" he promised would flow from peace.

IN THE DARK. When the crisis flared, Hussein had plenty of markers to call in. Since the 1994 deal, Jordan and Israel have cooperated in secret on security, Israeli sources say. Despite that, Netanyahu's officials did not tell Hussein they were tracking Meshal, believed to be the effective head of Hamas, which Israel blames for suicide bomb attacks in Israel. Nor, they say, did Netanyahu's government react to a truce offer from Hamas that was relayed by Hussein before the incident.

Arafat lost face because he played no role in Yassin's release. He wasn't even told until it was all over. Yassin's triumphal return to Gaza compounds Arafat's problems, since Israel insists that it will restart high-level peace talks only if he cracks down on Hamas.

But Netanyahu is finding it hard to enforce that condition. He is under strong U.S. pressure to resume substantive talks with Arafat. Indeed, the two men met briefly on Oct. 8, for the first time in eight months, as did Israel's Foreign Minister and Palestine's chief negotiator. Besides, Netanyahu is facing fierce criticism inside Israel for Mossad's blunder.

OUT IN FRONT. In contrast, Hussein's ability to obtain Yassin's release counters Arafat's influence on the West Bank and in Gaza. At home, it could silence Muslim and opposition critics and may even make groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to professional bodies of engineers and lawyers relent on their call to boycott the elections.

There are limits: Hussein is well ahead of his people in moving toward peace with Israel. "He will have to be careful not to be too far ahead," warns Jon B. Alterman, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Still, Hussein's policies have produced economic gains already. The U.S. forgave $750 million of Jordanian debt. Foreign aid will double, to $100 million, this year. Meanwhile, private foreign investment has reached $75 million this year, up from just $6 million last year.

For Hussein, the best outcome would be a large election victory for the new National Constitutional Party. Made up of his loyalists, the party could deliver a Parliament without serious opposition to steady reform and pursuit of the peace.

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