Today King Abdullah of Jordan flew to the United States for discussions with President Obama, ahead of the nuclear summit scheduled to take place this coming Monday and Tuesday, 12 -13 April, in Washington. Yesterday Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced that he would not be attending the nuclear summit.
When Netanyahu first let it be known that he would be going, eyebrows were raised - certainly in Israel, and pretty much around the world. It would have been the first time that an Israeli prime minister had ever attended an international conference on nuclear issues. But when Netanyahu learned that some participants were bent on pushing "an Israel-bashing agenda," it is understood, he called off his trip
Whatever assurances host Barack Obama may have given about controlling the agenda, Netanyahu was wise to ignore them. Consider the list of participating Muslim nations: Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. It was pretty obvious that one or other would be likely to seize the golden opportunity, with the world's media focused on them, to indulge in their favourite sport.
Since 1995 Egypt has repeatedly called for Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty*, and is likely to do so again at the Washington summit. Israel maintains a policy known as "nuclear ambiguity". While never officially admitting it has nuclear weapons, Israel has consistently maintained that it would not be the first to "introduce" nuclear weapons to the Middle East, leaving the exact interpretation of the pledge vague. Most believe that Israel is in effect undertaking never to initiate a nuclear strike, but reserving the right to respond with one if subject to a nuclear attack.
Whatever his invited guests may have in mind, it is unlikely that "Israel-bashing" is on President Obama's agenda on this occasion. His main purpose in calling the summit is to achieve an international consensus on imposing a fourth set of United Nations sanctions on Iran, for its persistent refusal to cease enriching uranium. This objective is high on Netanyahu's wish list, too, so it was perhaps quite a politic move to absent himself from the summit, thus helping to save the conference from being diverted from its primary aim.
A secondary reason for Netanyahu's absence, perhaps, was to avoid facing a possible further showdown with the US president, given that the list of requirements passed to him by Barack Obama after his last trip to Washington is still in his pending tray.
No such considerations restrain Jordan's King Abdullah from seeking a meeting with the US president. From an interview he gave to the Wall Street Journal just prior to leaving for the States, Abdullah seems intent on urging the US to exert even more pressure on Israel, particularly on the subject of the expansion and development of the suburbs of Jerusalem. The King says that the announcement of the 1600-apartments project in the ultra-orthodox Jewish district of Ramat Shlomo is a major obstacle to the putative proximity peace talks, and has pushed Jordanian-Israeli relations to their lowest point since the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994.
But the King did not mention that an equally vital obstacle to any peace initiative is the continuing bitter – and sometimes bloody – conflict between the Hamas and the Fatah wings of the Palestinian body politic. A comprehensive peace involving a two-state solution will be impossible before some sort of accommodation is worked out between them. And that particular power struggle seems every bit as intractable as the Israel-Palestine one.
But some commentators have been wondering whether the King has another, though hidden agenda. Far from wishing Israel to succumb to demands that would result in a weakened position on the Middle East scene, it has been suggested that the Jordanian monarch is actually in favour of as strong an Israel as possible, though it is impossible for him to say this directly.
The Hashemite monarchy has never been in a position fully to defend its kingdom against its enemies, domestic or foreign. It has always been more or less dependent on outside powers. Abdullah fears war. The Iranian axis – which includes Syria, Lebanon, Hamas, Hizbollah, and elements of Iraq – is the biggest threat to his regime. Syria dispatched the al-Qaeda bombers who blew up the hotels in Amman in 2005. Today Syria threatens Jordan almost as much as it did in 1970, when it supported the PLO in its bid to overthrow Abdullah’s father, King Hussein. Back then, Israel stepped in and saved the Hashemites. Now Abdullah is preoccupied with the threat from Iran and his fear that Ahmadinejad's bid to achieve domination in the Middle East will not be thwarted.
A strong – even a nuclear – Israel, backed by a nuclear-strong USA, is the surest safeguard he could find to offset the ambitions of Tehran in general, and guarantee Jordanian security in particular.
*Note on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, came into force in March 1970. Currently there are 189 states party to the treaty, five of which are recognized as nuclear weapon states: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China (they are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council). Four non-parties to the treaty are known or believed to possess nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan and North Korea have openly tested and declared that they possess nuclear weapons, while Israel has had a policy of opacity regarding its own nuclear weapons programme. North Korea acceded to the treaty, violated it, and withdrew from it in 2003.