SPENCER MICHELS: Two years ago, the leaders of the world streamed into the Middle East nation of Jordan to attend the funeral of a monarch they had known well, King Hussein, and to take the measure of his 37-year-old successor and son, King Abdullah II.
With a combination of caution and cunning, King Hussein had survived nearly five decades of Middle East turbulence. One of his last acts before his death from cancer was characteristically surprising. He removed his brother, Prince Hassan, who had been crown prince for two decades, and named Abdullah as successor to the throne of the Hashemite Kingdom, descendants of the prophet Muhammad.
Abdullah had spent his adult years as a military officer but not involved in affairs of state or diplomacy. He's the eldest of Hussein's five sons; his mother, the second of Hussein's four wives, was an Englishwoman, Toni Gardiner, who took the name Muna. Abdullah was educated in Britain and at two New England prep schools. He speaks English more fluently than Arabic.
Since ascending the throne, King Abdullah has remained loyal to his father's major legacy: Maintaining peace with Israel, along with strong ties to the United States. But the young monarch has also begun to plot his own course in dealing with his fellow Arabs. He has sought reconciliation with countries and leaders with whom his father had strained relations, including Syria, Kuwait, and Egypt, and Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority.
Domestically, King Abdullah has promoted free market reforms, partly as a way to deal with the 25 percent unemployment rate in his country. Last year, he and President Clinton signed a free trade agreement putting Jordan on a par with Canada, Mexico and Israel in its access to U.S. markets. But the agreement has not gone to Congress yet for ratification because of controversies over environmental and labor standards.
In his Bedouin kingdom of nearly five million, more than one million are Palestinians or of Palestinian descent, including King Abdullah's wife, Queen Rania. But when he closed down offices of the radical Hamas group, Abdullah demonstrated early in his reign he is ready to crack down on Palestinian or other domestic opposition. Since his arrival in Washington last week, to push his diplomatic and trade agendas, King Abdullah has met administration officials and members of Congress. Tomorrow he meets with President Bush.
JIM LEHRER: I talked with the king this morning at his hotel here in Washington.
Your Majesty, welcome.
KING ABDULLAH II: Thank you very much.
JIM LEHRER: Sir, what is it going to take to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, at this stage, sir, I think we're a bit further away from actually talking about peace. We're talking about now is a de-escalation of the tremendous violence we're seeing in our part of the world. Fortunately, a few days ago there was a securities meeting between both sides, which was, from what we could gather, very successful. So it's a small step in the right direction about deescalating the violence. If we continue in this way, hopefully, in the next few months we'll be in a position where we can get back to the peace tables.
JIM LEHRER: The Israel position, as you know, has been no serious peace negotiations until the violence ends. Is that a reasonable position from your point of view?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, there has been tremendous violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I think that both sides, as I said, need to sit down and create confidence building measures between both parties. That's being done at the moment. It takes the international community and all of us, really, to be able to support both sides to move in that direction. I fear that left by themselves, there will be a feeling of neglect from the international community, which will not encourage them to move in the proper direction.
JIM LEHRER: Why not? There's no motivation on the two sides to end the violence?
KING ABDULLAH II: There is motivation, and I think both sides realize the danger that they're getting themselves into, that they're playing with Pandora's box. If they continue in this cycle of violence, it could escalate beyond the borders of the Palestinians and the Israelis. And therefore, I think they need to feel reassured that we are going to stand with them and support them to move in the right direction. I think they need that moral support.
JIM LEHRER: There are some who question the ability of Yasser Arafat to end the violence, even if he wanted to. How do you read that, his power to do that?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, I... there have been other countries that have been making statements that he has no power. I don't think that's the case. There's no doubt that since the start of the Intifada his power has declined somewhat, but I think he still think that he has the ability to influence his people. And you have to remember, at the end of the day, he's still the symbol for the Palestinian course, and that does have some weight with the Palestinians on the street.
JIM LEHRER: What's your reading of the new prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, his late Majesty had a very healthy working relationship with the prime minister. I met him several years ago when he came with Prime Minister Netanyahu to Jordan. My father always said that he's always a man of his word, and when it comes to politics that's usually a very rare thing. So I'm looking forward to the prime minister being a very positive influence in the region.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have any plans to meet with him or go to Israel or invite him to Jordan?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, as the... I hope, as the security discussions between both sides continue, I'm sure that there will be a point in time when both the Israelis and Palestinians will want to engage with the Jordanians and others in the region so that there will be an opportunity for us to exchange views. How that will happen I don't know, but we will be there for them when they ask for us to.
JIM LEHRER: There's been much written and speculated about as far as what message you brought to the president of the United States and his administration and the secretary of state, et cetera, as to what the United States should do to kind of ease the situation in the Middle East. What was your message?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, I'm still to see the president, but in our discussions with various members of the administration and even on the Hill, there is a perception in the Middle East that America is not interested in really sticking its neck out for the Israelis and the Palestinians, which is not true. The American administration, quite rightly, I believe, to an extent feels that both sides need to sit down together and show that they are willing to take the risk to move forward, and at which point the Americans would be there to help them. I think to an extent towards the end of last year, I must admit that maybe America was taken a bit for granted in our part of the world. But, as I said, the securities meetings that developed a couple of days ago was successful and a step in the right direction. So I hope you'll see an American presence as an umbrella, at least, to support both sides in the near future.
JIM LEHRER: But is it correct to interpret, at least as we sit here, to interpret U.S. actions in the new administration as less interested in being deeply involved in the Middle East as the Clinton administration?
KING ABDULLAH II: I think there's a concern of being burnt in the peace process, and therefore, I think quite rightly, the American administration believes that we need to see that both you are willing to take this thing seriously enough to sit down and sort it out before we can get involved. As I said, taking the Americans for granted over the past several months, I think, maybe left a bad taste in their mouths. And so the emphasis now is on the Israelis and Palestinians to show that America deserves the ability to step in and help them.
JIM LEHRER: Do you feel obligated or motivated to bring that message back to the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world from this visit?
KING ABDULLAH II: I think one of the messages that I've already started to send back is that there is a sense of frustration in the United States, that we need to really put our heads together and move forward. We can't continue to expect that the Americans would step in sort of at the beck and call of the Middle East. We need to shoulder the responsibilities ourselves to an extent.
JIM LEHRER: The recent Arab League meeting over which you presided -- it was in Jordan -- many Americans were struck by the really severe anti-Israeli rhetoric that the Arab leaders used. What's the cause of that, what's behind that?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, I think part of it, sir, you have to understand that the images we see on television every day of the violence in the territories has created tremendous frustration, not only at the leadership level, but more importantly at the street level in the Middle East. But looking back at the statement, it depends whether you want to look at the glass half full or half empty. I like to look at the glass half full. There was a negative stand towards the violence that is perceived -- used by the Israeli armed forces on the Palestinians, and that came out in the declaration. On the other side, though, there was a clear call by all the Arab countries that they wanted to have a quick solution, a peaceful solution between the Israelis and Palestinians, and to have peace with Israel. So that's the side that I would like to concentrate on and build upon if I can.
JIM LEHRER: But is it correct to say that the Arab leaders believe that the violence and the problems between the Israelis and the Palestinians are solely the result of actions by the Israelis?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, I think that at this stage, looking at the past and trying to point fingers at each other really doesn't get us anywhere. I think we all understand that there is a cycle of violence being perpetrated by both sides, and we need to deescalate and get both parties to break that cycle. I've been in the United States since the security meetings. I hope that on my return there's an atmosphere that gives us hope and maybe a positive move in the right direction.
JIM LEHRER: What would you say to just ordinary Americans who are watching this interview about why we should care? We've had presidents of the United States, secretaries of state, for years heavily involved in trying to keep the Israelis and the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world from killing each other. Why should it matter to us?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, it matters, sir, because we're so close. If you look at Taba, what was discussed between the Israelis and Palestinians was very far reaching. We're on the verge once and for all to have peace and prosperity in our part of the world, and as long as there is instability and conflict in our region, because of your powers as a nation in the international arena, you're going to be dragged into it whether you like it or not. But let's look at this golden opportunity that was presented to us over the past several months. It's the closest that the Palestinians and Israelis have ever come to achieving peace. We were so close.
JIM LEHRER: The last Camp David...
KING ABDULLAH II: The last Camp David... well, from Camp David we went to Sharm El-Sheikh, we went to Taba. We, both sides, discussed issues that were considered taboo beforehand, and so all of us could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and for some reason it fell apart. And I think it just takes one last push to push this thing through. His late Majesty used to say, we want peace for our children and their children. I'd like to modify that to say, I want peace for us now and our children. This is a new millennium. Let's start it right. The idea of Israel being integrated into the region, for us to be able to break down the barriers and live in peace and prosperity once and for all -- that's why it's so important for us, and why it's so important for the United States.
JIM LEHRER: The late Majesty, your father, was deeply involved in every peace effort. Do you feel something special because of that, to do more than others?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, His Majesty always taught us to be a voice of moderation, to always look beyond the interests of our own borders, to look at the goodness of what could be bought for the whole region in the Middle East, and it's that sort attitude that I think permeates throughout Jordan. If we can help, if we can even take risks on our own selves to help others, that is the message that His Majesty taught us, and in the type of world that we live in, the part for peace is the harder battle, and this is the one that we have to take. It's the right path, and therefore Jordan will continue to take whatever risks it takes to bring peace and prosperity for all our neighbors.
JIM LEHRER: You've been the king now for two years. Is this a major priority for you, or what are your priorities in terms of what you want to do for your country?
KING ABDULLAH II: Well, for our country the priority is the economy, getting, as I've said from day one, food on the table. We have problems with poverty; we have problems with unemployment. If we are going to progress, if we are going to move forward on political reforms, economic reforms, we have to make the economy of paramount importance, and we've seen over the past two years a real improvement in that. We were the only country last year to join the World Trade Organization. We're in the process of agreeing with, hopefully, agreement of free trade with the United States. The indicators have been very positive. We've gone from negative growth to four percent growth in the past 18 months. The feeling, though, has not really filtered down yet to the people in the street, and we need to continue in this light, and I hope that prosperity is just around the corner. So the economy is the first priority.
JIM LEHRER: What has been the most difficult adjustment or task or challenge that you have faced in the two years since you've been king of Jordan?
KING ABDULLAH II: I think changing the mentalities of people that, no matter how difficult the future look, whatever obstacles we have in front of us, they can be overcome. There's always the attitude it can't be done, it's too difficult. That doesn't sit very well with me. And now there's a sense of teamwork in Jordan; there's a sense that we can achieve the prosperity that we want, and that's being permeated -- all sectors of society. We're moving forward, and I think the biggest challenge at the beginning was to get people to believe that the vision I have for Jordan is possible and can be reached.
JIM LEHRER: You appear to be very comfortable in this position. Are appearances correct in this case?
KING ABDULLAH II: It's a very difficult job. I feel the frustrations and insecurities I think that anybody would in this job, but the job has to be done. You can either laugh or cry about it, but you have challenges. I have the responsibility of over four million people, and I am in a position to do good, to be able to bring about a new life for my people, and I will continue to move in that direction. It's a burden, but it needs to be done, and you have to have the courage and wisdom to see it through.
JIM LEHRER: Your Majesty, thank you very much.
KING ABDULLAH II: Thank you very much, sir.