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Newsmaker: King Abdullah

December 5, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And to our Newsmaker interview with King Abdullah of Jordan. I talked with him this morning at his Washington hotel, asking him first about a Palestinian cease-fire proposal that he discussed with President Bush yesterday.

KING ABDULLAH II: This new prime minister is obviously trying to reach out to the Israelis to find some grounds of solving the security issue. A comprehensive cease-fire is what he is trying to do within the Palestinian community. But at the same time he needs the Israelis to meet him halfway. The problem that happened with Abu Mazen was, that there was a lot for Abu Mazen to do on the ground, but…

JIM LEHRER: He was the former prime minister.

KING ABDULLAH II: The former prime minister. And so what we need to be able to do is to make sure that the Israelis meet this new prime minister halfway, which would mean ceasing the targeted assassinations, easing up on checkpoints, easing up basically on the social fabric of Palestinian society, which is pretty dismal at the moment. So we have a lot of homework to do, actually.

JIM LEHRER: Do you still believe, Your Majesty, that the United States has the ability to persuade Israel to do certain things at certain times?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, I have to say yes, but the issue is that we have to give something tangible to the process for the Americans to get engaged with … always the argument of the security issue … unless we can solve that, then it is difficult for the Americans to come and be specific. There’s a lot of pressure on, as I said, the prime minister of the Palestinians at the moment to try to come to some sort of accommodation with the Israelis, which will then lead on to the Americans re-engaging on the road map.

JIM LEHRER: Do you personally believe that the people in charge of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, the new prime minister, and all the others, have the power to stop the terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians if they wanted to?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, you’ll never — there will always be extremists on either side that you can never be able to control. But I do believe that this prime minister is working as hard as he can to reach out to all the different parts of Palestinian society to create a cease-fire. There is an issue, obviously within the Palestinians because there is a bit of competitiveness between certain groups, and so the overall authority to be able to create the cease-fire is the problem that we are trying to work out at the moment.

JIM LEHRER: As you know, many Israelis and also some Americans believe that there never will be peace between Israelis and Palestinians as long as Yasser Arafat is calling the shots on the Palestinian side. Do you share that?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, the issue at the moment is really trying to strengthen the prime minister and have a reflection of a government that we can all understand. And this is part of the confusion that is happening inside of Palestinian society at the moment. There is obviously, I wouldn’t say a power struggle, but everybody wants to keep part of his turf. I believe that if you want Palestinian society to move forward, the prime minister needs to be empowered. And this is the problem the prime minister is having with, as he says, his very good friend President Arafat. This is an issue they have to resolve between themselves.

JIM LEHRER: And it is not resolved as we sit here now.

KING ABDULLAH II: Not to the extent that I would I feel comfortable that I can I see the process moving forward.

JIM LEHRER: So you, essentially, agree that as long as it is believed or even if it’s true, that Arafat is still in charge, there is not going to be a lot of movement.

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, there’s different angles to this. Arafat has a lot of authority, and if he feels that he is being engaged — I mean there is a bit of a game going on here, too — that he has the ability to bring things under control, but he wants people to talk to him. It’s a complicated issue that we are trying to get through, to put personalities aside and sort of go back to the larger picture, which is, you know, the cycle of violence that both the Israelis and Palestinians are suffering from.

JIM LEHRER: Now the other side of the coin is, there are many in the Arab world who believe there will never be peace as long as Ariel Sharon is the prime minister of Israel. Do you share that view?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, no, I mean, I’m, from my experience is, is that the leaderships want to have peace, they have different views and this is part of the issue. I think that there are those in the Israeli government that would like to take more time in other words, the interim solution, which is let us take our time over the next five to ten years. I don’t prescribe to that point of view because every day we waste means the loss of life for Israelis and Palestinians and an increase in the cycle of violence.

So we have different emphasis on how we want to achieve it. At the end of the day, everybody wants peace, but it’s compromise at the end of the day. And both sides, it’s difficult to get them to compromise for the bigger picture.

JIM LEHRER: But in terms of personalities and history between these two men, Arafat and Sharon, at the end of their days, do you think they have the ability and the capability and the desire to make…

KING ABDULLAH II: They have the ability and the capability. But the animosity between them is an issue that makes it very difficult to achieve, unfortunately.

JIM LEHRER: Did you come away from your conversation with the president believing that he is fully engaged on trying to make something work in the Middle East?

KING ABDULLAH II: Yes, and we had a lot more time to delve into this when we were at Camp David several months ago. But again, the president has certain capital that he can expand on to the peace process. And it is up to the rest of us, the international community, Jordanians and even many people in Washington, to create the circumstances so that when the president gets engaged, we actually can move the process forward.

At the moment, there is nothing tangible — the president can give his support — but you know, it’s a presidential card as he said to me several years ago, and when you use that, you can only out use it sort of once. And we have to make sure that all the ducks are lined up in a row, so to speak.

JIM LEHRER: On Iraq, you supported the U.S. and coalition action against Iraq in March. Do you still feel supportive about it?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, we always believed that there should be the future of Iraqis for Iraqis. It looks to sort of — to most people — a pretty dismal state of affairs inside Iraq at the moment. The security situation is pretty bad. The only way to solve that is to get Iraqis back on the street as opposed to coalition forces. So the quicker we can train police and military, Iraqi police and military to take over for the coalition forces, the security situation will improve. The difficulty, there’s a parallel track, also, the government’s problem of handing the governing capabilities back to the Iraqis.

My only concern is that if you move too quickly on that, then if you can’t hand over to the Iraqis an authority that is going to succeed, and you pull out, then things will fall apart. You are going to have to come back and revisit the problem, so I want to be cautious that the two tracks, the security aspect of it and handing over the powers to the Iraqis is done systematically. Now all of us would like to do it sooner, would like to see the Iraqis be responsible for their future. But I think, as a soldier for the most part of my life, there are some practicalities on the ground that may take a lot longer than people would actually want.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think the current plan for the turnover of power for this, sometime this summer, June, July, somewhere in there, is realistic?

KING ABDULLAH II: It … can be achieved, but it needs a lot of coordination and a lot of work. And again, who are you handing power over to? The interim government, was a good start, it’s a step in the right direction. I don’t think it is as representative as it should be of the Iraqi people. I think there should be more investment in the Sunni constituency. And if these issues are not properly tackled, then we could be creating more problems for us further down the line.

JIM LEHRER: Have you expressed this to the…


JIM LEHRER: …president and others in the administration?

KING ABDULLAH II: We’ve had very clear discussions and very open discussions with this administration. They’ve always been very interested and supportive of our views. It was a very healthy atmosphere. We said what we thought the problems were. We heard the American point of view, and I think we came to some constructive ideas on how to move forward on making Iraq a better place for the Iraqis.

JIM LEHRER: Your Majesty, I was struck by looking at the results of a poll that the Pew Organization did. It was a worldwide poll, but the results from Jordan are stunning and I’m sure you’re aware of them, an overwhelming majority of your people did not support the U.S. action, in fact, wished that the Iraqis had put up a larger resistance, and believe the country is worse off without Saddam Hussein. How do you explain that?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, again, there’s national pride, regional pride. At the end of the day for most Arabs, it was an invading power from across the sea, you know, if some European countries got involved over here in North America, whether it was a neighbor of yours or one further afield, there is a national affinity to be sort of supportive of those that are closer to you.

And, again, unfortunately, I think there was a misperception of the views of why this war, I mean the president wanted to give a better life for Iraqis, but the way it was transferred to most Arab minds was that this was all about oil, so that these misconceptions didn’t help the situation.

Unfortunately, to the average person looking at Iraq now with, the chaos that’s going on, it looks worse than it was with Saddam in power. But we hope that as time over this year translates to improving the situation on the ground, Iraqis will be able to look to the future and know that it is going to be brighter than it was yesterday.

JIM LEHRER: How do you deal with this public opinion problem here? I mean, you have your position as the king of your country and you’ve taken very public positions in support of what the U.S. is doing, and yet your public is not with you. How do you deal with that?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, in Jordan, I mean it’s … sometimes have to take one step back to take two forward. I mean, no process in moving societies forward has ever been easy. But I think at the end of the day, Iraqis, and I think hopefully in this year, the next 12 months will feel once they have more control of their lives, they’ll look back on this recent history and know that they’ve moved beyond that. At the end of the day, it’s what the Iraqis feel as opposed to all of us in the region.

Saddam was far more popular in the Middle East than he was on his own street. And I think most Arabs understand that. He was popular because he used his political weight as being sort of a force against Israel. I don’t think there were any Iraqis that would tell you they were a great fan of him inside of Iraq. At the end of the day, what happened in Iraq is for Iraqis, not for Jordanians or Saudis or other people.

JIM LEHRER: There was another element in that poll that showed that 1 percent of the people in Jordan, at least 1 percent of the people, according to this poll, had a favorable view toward the United States. And yet the president said yesterday, you know, he considers you one of America’s greatest friends in that part of the world. How do you reconcile that?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, again, you have to be careful how you … you ask questions in a poll.

JIM LEHRER: Sure, sure.

KING ABDULLAH II: You ask a question so that you get the answer you want. The poll, the way it was asked, there are two elements of that question, it was “What you think of American foreign policy?” Now, the overwhelming majority of Jordanians have been very bitter from what they feel was a one handed approach, a one-sided approach of American foreign policy in the region and mainly towards…

JIM LEHRER: In other words, too pro-Israeli.

KING ABDULLAH II: Too pro-Israeli. This is the impression. And Jordan is a far more open-minded liberal pro-Western country than a lot of others in the region.

Now the second part of the question was, what do you think about America. The overwhelming majority says we love what America stands for, we like Americans, we like the American way of life, but we have an issue with American foreign policy. So you can love America, you can have American friends, but you can be pretty disgruntled with American policy. And I think that is the truth of the polling that was done in Jordan.

JIM LEHRER: But in a general way, does the United States have a serious problem in the Arab world that it should be dealing with, above and beyond what it is doing right now?

KING ABDULLAH II: As I said, I think if Jordan is reflective of the mood, I think Jordan will probably be on the more moderate response that you’d get from a lot of other Arab countries. And I think what worries me as a friend of the United States is not just the feeling in the Arab world towards America, I’m seeing this in Europe, I’m seeing this in Asia. America has a serious issue with the way the international community looks towards the United States, which is nothing but negative. And I hope that our friends can work to overcome those issues.

JIM LEHRER: Does it relate solely to Iraq or does it go beyond that?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, I think that because the perception in the international community that the Iraq issue was taken on by the United States and somewhat alone, has disgruntled a lot of views in the international community. But the friends of the United States are concerned about the anti-American feeling throughout the international community, and I hope we can get beyond this, weather the storm, so to speak, and get beyond this.

JIM LEHRER: Again, did you discuss this kind of thing with the president?

KING ABDULLAH II: No, I mean, we usually just jump straight into the specifics of what needs to be done on the ground in the Iraqi issue or the Israeli-Palestinian —

JIM LEHRER: What about other U.S. officials? In other words, is this such a concern of yours that you believe, I mean, that have communicated the concerns you just did now to me with people who are in charge of our government?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, I think it’s also members of the government that have been also been supporting me in certain arguments we’ve had or discussions over the past two or three years that are very familiar with the Middle East that they’re concerned, with their experiences as Americans in the Middle East feel that the animosity towards the United States is of their concern, and this is something we all agreed on.

I mean, I think people understand there is an issue in the international community that needs to be overcome. I’m hoping, as Iraq settles into place, as we move the peace process forward, at least for our part of the world, people will say that the hard work that was invested actually, at the end of the day, was for the values that the Americans wanted to, you know, pass on to our part of the world, to have freedom, to have a chance at a better life. But at the moment, the mood is pretty sour, unfortunately.

JIM LEHRER: Your Majesty, thank you very much.