Israel’s relations with its closest Arab ally, Jordan, have deteriorated to an acrimonious level, raising alarm that the Jewish state is fast alienating its friends in the Arab world.
Jordan’s King Hussein reportedly issued a blunt warning this week to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, cautioning that anything can happen if peace is not achieved, “including a revival of 1991 when Netanyahu wore his gas mask during the gulf war.”
Hussein, who serves as custodian for Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, has strongly protested to Israel about the opening of a new exit two weeks ago in an archaeological tunnel under Jerusalem’s walled Old City and demanded that it be closed.
Netanyahu has refused, brushing aside Arab concerns that the tunnel passes within 100 yards of Islam’s third-holiest shrines and might endanger them.
The Jordanian monarch also has a stake in Israel’s delicate U.S.-brokered peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which entered a fourth day Wednesday with no substantive progress reported.
President Clinton invited the king to attend the summit he held in Washington last week, bringing Netanyahu together with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to seek a solution after rioting and gunbattles erupted between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers, killing 74.
During the summit, a fuming King Hussein chastised Netanyahu at an Oct. 2 luncheon, also attended by Clinton and Arafat in the White House Blue Room, according to an article by columnist Thomas Friedman in Wednesday’s New York Times.
Hussein was said to be “deeply disappointed” by Netanyahu’s positions toward the Palestinians, warning he did not know how much more they could take, and he invoked the memory of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “a man whom I had the great pride to call my friend,” the article said.
“What we need, sir, is not the arrogance of power but the vision that Yitzhak Rabin had,” Hussein reportedly told Netanyahu. “Maybe one day you’ll have it. But today was a success for extremists and warmongers. I am very disappointed.”
The king concluded, according to the article, “Prime Minister Netanyahu, I am concerned for you. You are the leader of Israel. Can you seize the moment? Because if you can’t, the real impact will be on all of us in this room.”
Although Israeli officials tried to play down the harsh statements coming from the king and other Jordanian officials, the criticism signaled frustration and anger from Israel’s staunchest defender in the Arab world since Israel and Jordan signed a 1994 peace treaty.
Hussein was the only moderate Arab leader who did not express alarm at the election of Netanyahu and his right-wing, Likud-led government.