A year after peace treaty, skepticism high in Jordan

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AMMAN, Jordan — One year after Israel and Jordan signed their historic peace treaty, many Jordanian citizens say the peace is not quite living up to their expectations.

Unlike their Israeli counterparts, who, opinion polls show, believe that peaceful relations with their eastern neighbor was long overdue, a large number of Jordanians remain wary.

And their wariness and skepticism persists despite concerted efforts by Jordan's King Hussein to convince his people that the peace treaty with Israel, signed Oct. 26, 1994, is in their best interests.

Ask a typical Jordanian whether peace with Israel has resulted in a better life, and the answer is often negative.

"I was born in Ramallah, and I can only visit there if I have a visa," said grocery owner Khalid Barghouti. "My mother was born in Haifa, but she can't live there.

"What gives Jews born in Bucharest or Lyons the right to live in Safed or Haifa?"

But, Barghouti said, "We're not prejudiced against Jews. We're not against peace, but against what happened to us historically. This treaty changes nothing."

With the exception of its tourism industry, which is already benefiting from the accord, Jordan's economy continues to be sluggish.

And even though Jordan has officially terminated its participation in the Arab boycott, local professional organizations routinely urge their members not to attend workshops and conferences where large numbers of Israelis are expected to attend.

But this is not to say that Israeli-Jordanian relations are at a standstill.

Thanks to the treaty, Jordanians and Israelis can cross the border, enabling not only freedom of movement but real, if somewhat limited, interaction between the two peoples.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have realized their dream of visiting the rose-colored Nabatean city of Petra.

And thousands of Jordanians, many of Palestinian heritage, have been able to pray at Jerusalem's al-Aksa Mosque and to revisit long-abandoned homes in Jaffa, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

An estimated 50 percent to 60 percent of Jordan's population is made up of Palestinians. Many of them either fled to Jordan after the 1948 War of Independence or the 1967 Six Day War, or are descendants of refugees.

In addition to the advances in tourism, representatives of both governments have discussed dozens of joint ventures, most notably in agriculture, medicine and technology — all of which, officials maintain, should improve the quality of life on both sides of the Jordan River.

Rami Khouri, a leading Jordanian political analyst, attempted to spell out the reasons for Jordanians' lack of faith in the peace with Israel.

"First, there is the way the peace treaty was done, without much consultation with the people," said Khouri. "Second, the economic benefits have yet to materialize.

"Third, there is a strong feeling that while we have become lovey-dovey with Israel, Israel is still occupying Arab lands — in some cases still killing and blowing up houses.

"Fourth, people feel that the peace treaty has slightly isolated us from our natural hinterland in the Arab world. There has been a lot of focus on relations between us and Israel at the detriment of our relations with Arab countries."

A fundamental problem, Khouri added, is that "at least two-thirds of the Jordanian people have personal links with Palestine."

"Many Palestinians here have personal claims against the government of Israel," he said, referring to property claims.

Still, Jordanians feel only "a mild form of skepticism," he said, with most accepting making peace with Israel "as a good thing to do.

"They trust the king. If you were to stop people on the street, six to seven out of 10 would say, `I'm not sure it's the best treaty, but it's worth a try.'"

Among those willing to give peace a chance is Mohammed Hasan, a furniture and carpet salesman.

"The peace has been very good for both peoples," he said.

Noting that he had recently returned to Amman after a three-month stay with relatives in Israel, he added; "Before the treaty I couldn't enter Israel to visit my relatives. Now I can go any time I want.

"Not long ago, I was in Netanya on a Friday afternoon. I was waiting for a bus, not realizing that there are no buses before the Jewish Sabbath. A Jewish man stopped his car and asked if he could help me. Being in Israel was exciting."

Ahmed Ziad, a taxi driver, agreed.

"Since the treaty, there are more tourists, more jobs for taxi drivers," he said. "Because of the wars, and what I read in the newspapers, I used to think that Israelis were hateful people. I hated them all."

But personal contact with Israelis has made all the difference.

"I changed my mind after meeting them," he added. "I don't speak Hebrew or English, so it's difficult to communicate. But all in all, I've found Israelis to be very friendly."