Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Marc Epstein
28 August 2008

L’Express: At the launch of the Union for the Mediterranean in July in Paris, Jordan was represented by the Prime Minister. Can your absence be interpreted as a lack of interest for this project?

King Abdullah: No, I have a very close friendship with President Sarkozy but my schedule did not allow me to attend the meeting. This is one of the reasons for my visit to France on August 27.

L’Express: What do you expect to come out of the Union for the Mediterranean?

King Abdullah: We have a strong relationship with Europe; your region has always been closer to the Middle East than the United States, Russia or countries of the Far East. France, in particular, is Jordan's major investment partner. The Union for the Mediterranean presents an actual means for us to get closer.

L’Express: Why would the Union for the Mediterranean succeed more than the Barcelona Process dating back to 1995 and which has disappointed?

King Abdullah: This is due to the lack of recorded progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The Union for the Mediterranean in a way takes action on this situation and proposes another dynamic, thanks to a series of concrete projects which are of interest to all the countries in the region.

L’Express: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the object of multiple negotiations to the point where everyone basically knows what the parameters of a final agreement might look like. Only the political resolve is missing. On this question, do you see any reasons to hope for a development?

King Abdullah: This is the core issue. Within the PNA and many Arab countries, there is strong resolve to reach an accord. But what is it from Israel? I have often discussed with Israelis and said: Look if we're going to build this confidence of this relationship and work the peace process forward, explain to me what your country would be like ten years from now. And what would its role in the region be then? This is a question numerous Arab leaders can answer easily.

Israelis on the other hand seem obsessed with present times, suicide bombers and rocket attacks against their territories. They only see the fortress Israel of today, without thinking forward to the future where their state would be integrated into the region. For this reason, I am concerned, that the peace process is in jeopardy. The Jordanian support remains intact. But I am not convinced that Israel wants to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem because they lack the long-term vision.

L’Express: Israel is negotiating with Syria through Turkey as well as with Hezbollah through intermediaries. Is it not frustrating to note that modern Arab leaders, such as yourself, have often been kept on the sidelines?

King Abdullah: It is extremely frustrating. We obviously wish that the Syrians and the Israelis good luck, assuming they can solve their problems. But these exchanges take place precisely at a time where many countries in the region are trying to push the Israeli-Palestinian, the core issue of the Middle East across the threshold and lots of the Israelis are now talking to the Syrians.

I might seem facetious to you, but it seems to me that those bilateral negotiations are somewhat convenient for both sides because they constitute a good reason to avoid concentrating on the Palestinian issue. I am worried because in the meantime, the clock is ticking. At the rate things are going, the West Bank will soon no longer have geographic continuity. In these conditions, how is a viable Palestinian state imaginable? And if this prospect moves away, how to move forward the negotiations? Currently, 57 countries, a third of the countries represented at the United Nations, do not recognise Israel. We offer Israel the recognition of the Arab and Islamic world which stretches from Morocco to Indonesia. This is something. But in return, a future for the Palestinians has to be offered.

L’Express: Is there another option than the creation of a Palestinian state?

King Abdullah: No, I don't think so. The only acceptable solution in the eyes of the Muslims and the Arabs means an understanding on Jerusalem; the understanding on refugees and the understanding for a homeland for the Palestinians. Sometimes people evoke the “Jordanian Option,” the confederation kind. But nothing will happen as long as the Palestinians do not have a state.

L’Express: If John McCain and Barack Obama are serious about reaching a settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should they push for a settlement in their first term?

King Abdullah: Yes because the clock is ticking. Israelis and Palestinians, left alone, will not be able to reach solution.

L’Express: As long as Hamas controls Gaza and that the Palestinian camp is divided, is it realistic to talk about a settlement?

King Abdullah: Western countries pay too much attention to Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. If the Israeli, American and European leaders consider Hamas to be a pariah, then they should support the Palestinian Authority more. Primarily by paying a more important economic aid but also - in what concerns Israel - by removing the checkpoints and stopping the building of settlements. By failing to pursue such a policy, Israel and its Western partners objectively help Hamas. And it is very easy to then explain to us that, on the Palestinian side, there are no partners to negotiate peace with.

L’Express: Israel has approved the building of new settlements in the West Bank. What do you think of this?

King Abdullah: This is a sign of a lack of interest in Israel for solution foreseeing two states. Every time they build a settlement it means that what they say on one hand, and what they do on the other hand, are two different things. The settlements, the negotiations with Syria and other Israeli initiatives lately convince me that Israeli is not seeking to solve the Palestinian question in spite of their rhetoric regarding the issue. What is happening to the Palestinians is also a crime.

L’Express: According to the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammad El Baradei, six months to one year is enough for Iran to produce enough enriched uranium in order to build a bomb. In your mind, is this an acceptable prospect or should there be an intervention to stop the process?

King Abdullah: The Iranians are playing an ambiguous role in this case, just as the Indians, the Pakistanis or the Israelis before them. It seems to me what Tehran wants to tell us is that Iran is an important actor in the region and that we all need to take good notice of it. It is a political message. Jordan, for its part, hopes that there won't be an armed intervention against Iran. Such an operation will provoke a tit-for-tat response and who knows where such a sequence will take us? All countries in the region will pay the price.

L’Express: Nevertheless, if it were established that the Iranians are indeed developing a military nuclear capability, should one resign oneself to that or should it be prevented at any price?

King Abdullah: The Iranians insist that they're developing a peaceful programme. An American report of several months ago seems to agree with them. The British also claim to be reassuring. Furthermore, I do not have the impression that Israel has the capacity to destroy an eventual Iranian nuclear programme. And once again, I fear the tit-for-tat response.

L’Express: Are you concerned about the clearly growing Iranian influence in the region?

King Abdullah: Iran is viewed favourably in certain regions close to the Mediterranean. The Israeli policy is not unfamiliar with this new popularity. What I do not cease to repeat is: the Israeli-Palestinian question is not isolated. If the Americans want to reduce Teheran's influence in the region, it has to commit itself more to the Israeli-Palestinian question. Because the Iranians use this issue to move their pawns forward and to manipulate like others have done in the past.

L’Express: Are you concerned about a Russian resurgence?

King Abdullah: During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the West often confronted each other using a third country. Should there be a rise of tension between Russia and the West, I'm afraid that the countries of the Middle East will be involved once again.

L’Express: In Jordan, like elsewhere, the price of food is rising; that of fuel as well. Do certain groups - Islamists, in particular - try to gain from this situation?

King Abdullah: Jordanians are suffering from the rise in prices; they feel anxious. We have launched aid programmes which, from now till the end of the year, should protect our fellow-citizens in need. For my country, this comes at the worst possible time because reforms committed to in the past several years; aim to encourage the emerging of a middle class. And this one should in the future facilitate the development of other reforms: economic, social and political.

Now, members of the middle class are deeply affected by the rise in prices. On the energy level, we are dependent on the supply of oil and gas. On the other hand, we have three per cent of the world's uranium resources and so we want to establish a nuclear sector and France at this point, can undoubtedly help us. In seven years - thanks to Areva, I hope - we will dispose of a first nuclear reactor.

L’Express: Your father, King Hussein, designated you as crown prince in the last days of his reign. Do you ever regret the period where you could lead, as it were, a normal life?

King Abdullah: There's a part of me that's always going to regret that. In the army, my life was much simpler: I knew who my friends were and who my enemies were. In the position I occupy today, this is sometimes less clear. Then, of course, one cannot make mistakes because my responsibility is enormous. However, my responsibility allows me to work for the benefit of my country and my people.

L’Express: Queen Rania describes your relationship as a “partnership.”

King Abdullah: Yes. The fact of becoming king and queen has contributed to strengthening our relationship because of the pressure, the responsibilities and the opportunities that the post procures. Before, I was Commander of the Special Forces and Rania devoted a lot of time to charitable work. Today, our responsibilities have brought us closer.

L’Express: “One cannot make a mistake,” you just said. Do you have regrets?

King Abdullah: We should have undoubtedly moved faster. I have a vision for the future of Jordan. And sometimes I have the feeling that we should have encouraged more reforms without delay. Numerous advisers have warned me against the danger of reforming a country too fast. But Jordan cannot afford to waste time.