The Washington Diplomat / August 1999
By Larry Luxner
Being your country's envoy to the United States is never an easy assignment. But Jordanian diplomat Marwan Muasher [has had] particularly good training for the job: before coming to Washington in June 1997, he spent a year as Jordan's first ambassador to former enemy Israel.
"Most of the time, I stayed at the Dan Hotel [in Tel Aviv] because we had no official residence," said Muasher, who soon after arriving visited his Palestinian mother's former house in the ancient city of Jaffa, now a suburb of Tel Aviv. "We had to start from scratch, in every sense of the word. Israelis and Jordanians had different expectations of the job. We were setting precedence in many ways, even though Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel."
The 43-year-old ambassador, who speaks basic Hebrew in addition to English and his native Arabic, said his sojourn Israel was "interesting, tough and challenging" -- and excellent preparation for his eventual appointment to the United States.
"Washington is also challenging and tough, but in different ways," said the soft-spoken diplomat during an interview last month at the Jordanian Embassy, just down the street from the Israeli Embassy on International Drive. "There isn't the mental stress that was associated with being Jordan's first ambassador to Israel, but Washington is the center of decision-making in the world, and the process is not controlled by one body alone. If you encounter difficulties in one body, you can approach another one. Washington is very rewarding in that sense."
Muasher, Jordan's former minister of information, is a computer engineer by profession, with a bachelor's, master's and doctorate in that field from Purdue University. He says his country's relations with the United States have improved dramatically in the nine years since the Gulf War.
"We were against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait from Day One, but did not support the introduction of foreign troops to the area," he says. Nevertheless, he adds, "Jordan today enjoys wide and bipartisan support. Our relations with Congress, the U.S. public and of course the Arab-American community is excellent. Certainly the peace process has had a lot to do with it. We have very good relations with American Jewish organizations, and have started a dialogue with them that has become institutionalized by now."
On the economic front, trade with the United States is still relatively insignificant. Jordan buys $400 million a year worth of U.S.-manufactured automobiles, computers and heavy equipment, but only sells $15 million in exports to the United States -- namely handicrafts and Dead Sea salts.
"We have already signed a partnership agreement with the European Union, and are now seeking a free-trade agreement with the United States," he said. "We're still in the preliminary stages of this agreement. This would be a major boost to our exports."
Muasher, who's approaching the midpoint of his five-year assignment in Washington, said his desert kingdom remains in shock over the death earlier this year of King Hussein, who had reigned since 1953.
"He was a father figure to the nation," he said, noting that 50% of Jordan's 4.7 million inhabitants are under 15 years old; the vast majority of Jordanians had never known any other leader. "I think there have been positive developments in Jordan since the king's death, primarily the smoothness of the transition. People thought that once King Hussein left the scene, Jordan would cease to exist."
Nevertheless, Hussein's successor, 37-year-old King Abdullah, faces daunting challenges. Jordan's unemployment rate stands at 15%, and its per-capita income totals only $1,550 a year -- less than a tenth of Israel's per-capita income of $17,000. All this is compounded by Jordan's 3.4% annual population growth rate -- one of the world's highest.
"When you have open borders, you cannot afford a large discrepancy in income without inviting trouble," said Muasher, noting that at least 20,000 Jordanians are currently working illegally in Israel.
Another serious problem is water. "Even after we get our full share of water under the peace treaty, we will still be very water-poor. We have a deficit of 200 million cubic meters a year," he said. "Israel uses three times as much water as Jordan on a per-capita basis. Israel controls the source by diverting most of the Jordan River even before it reaches Jordan."
Yet Muasher doesn't hide his enthusiasm or optimism for Israel's newly elected prime minister, Ehud Barak -- whom he came to know during Barak's tenure as Israeli foreign minister under the Rabin government. The new Israeli leader, says Muasher, is a definite breath of fresh air compared to his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
"I have met Barak many times," says the ambassador, who from 1991 to 1994 was a spokesman and member of Jordan's delegation to the Middle East peace talks. "Barak has been given a clear mandate of peace by the Israeli electorate. The composition of his government reflects a pro-peace agenda. I also think the frustration felt by Arabs and Israelis over the last five years has given everyone a renewed commitment to make full use of this window of opportunity that has suddenly developed."
Since 1994, when Jordan became the second Arab country to recognize Israel and sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state, a number of Israeli-Jordanian joint ventures have sprung up, particularly in northern Jordan. Factories producing irrigation equipment, textiles and other goods have found their way to the U.S. export market -- helped along by Israeli know-how and Jordan's relatively low wages.
Another important growth area is tourism. With millennium celebrations approaching, the Jordanian Tourist Board expects 200,000 Americans alone to visit the country next year -- double the 100,000 pilgrims and tourists who came in 1998. Jordan is already home to the spectacular ancient Nabatean city of Petra, the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, Jesus Christ's baptismal site and Roman ruins at Jerash and elsewhere throughout the 34,445-square-mile kingdom.
As a result, hotel development is booming not only in the capital city of Amman, where Sheraton, Four Seasons, Inter-Continental and Hyatt all have five-star properties, but also along the salty shores of the Dead Sea, which was off-limits for years because of its proximity to the Israeli border. Every year, an estimated 120,000 Israelis visit Jordan, and 20,000 to 30,000 Jordanians visit Israel.
Yet when it comes to serious issues such as the future borders of a Palestinian state or the final status of Jerusalem, Israel and Jordan remain far apart. The Jordanian government supports United Nations declarations calling for the Palestinians' right to return to their ancestral homelands; at the moment, Jordan is home to 1.5 million Palestinians who fled there after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.
Likewise, the new Barak government says it won't tolerate a Palestinian army west of the Jordan River -- which some interpret as a refusal to withdraw Israeli troops from the narrow strip of land that separates Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority from Israel's long border with Jordan. Barak has already rejected appeals by Jordan and other Arab states for Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.
Yet Muasher seems confident that Israelis and Jordanians will eventually get along and even like each other, despite the bitterness that has separated them for years.
"I don't really place the same importance on this thermostat measure of peace, as others do," he says. "I think it's very normal for peace to start between governments, not between people. They have to see the dividends of peace. Whereas the needs of Israeli citizens have been satisfied through the treaty, the needs of Jordanians have not been fully addressed. The economic situation has not improved, and neither has the Palestinian situation. It takes time, but I'm not worried. I have no doubt that as the other tracks are resolved and peoples' needs are addressed, [the] peace between Israel and Jordan will get warmer."
He adds that bilateral trade among Jordan, the West Bank and Israel totals less than $30 million a year. "We think realistically this can be 10 times that number, but we're faced with many trade and non-trade barriers within Israel. This is clear protectionism. We believe increasing the volume of trade would be a clear dividend of peace."
At the same time, Muasher says Jordan's stormy relations with Syria's Hafez al-Assad have definitely improved in recent years, though in response to a question about Iraq, he clearly moved to distance himself from Saddam Hussein.
"Our relations with Iraq are driven by our concern for the Iraqi people. They have suffered from sanctions for the last 10 years," said Muasher, choosing his words very carefully. "They need a pluralistic system, but the Iraqis should decide this for themselves."
On the subject of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital, the diplomat was much less ambiguous. Asked if there's any chance Jordan would someday follow the lead of El Salvador, Costa Rica and a few other small countries that have symbolically moved their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Muasher smiled and said: "Absolutely not."