Warm peace inspires tepid Husein talk to journalists

We thought we were going to the palace for a private press conference with the king. Instead we found that the TV cameras were turned on us as much as they were on his majesty. And the taped proceedings would air that very evening on Jordanian TV's news show.

Many of Jordan's 4 million residents reportedly are lukewarm about the peace treaty Hussein signed with Israel on Oct. 26, 1994. This televised press conference was an opportunity to show his constituents one of the benefits of peace, the attention and undoubtedly the tourism the Hashemite kingdom is winning from the Western world — in this case Jewish journalists from as far as the United States, France and Argentina.

To call the proceedings a press conference is a too-liberal interpretation of what we have come to expect from Western political leaders. In this case, it was more like "I'll talk and you listen."

Before the king entered the hall, the journalists were told there would be no questions and answers. Instead, his majesty would give a short speech and then pose for a handshake with each of us. And of course, these handshakes would be recorded for all Jordanians to see on their TV news.

As per instructions, we all rose when his highness entered. The host of our journalists' group, Kobi Leket, director general of the World Zionist Organization information department, greeted the king from a microphone about six feet from Hussein's majestic desk. Leket then slowly approached the king to hand him a gift — two silver doves of peace perched on a white platform.

Now it was Hussein's turn. In an almost inaudible whisper, the short, pallid monarch welcomed his guests. There would be no major announcements tonight, just a reiteration of how warm the peace is between Jordan and Israel.

Hussein talked of "the harmony and cooperation between our two people." He said that Jordan has a sense of urgency "to make up for all the time we have lost.

"I hope that what we achieve will be an inspiration to others," he added in an apparent reference to Syria's intransigence.

"Ours is a real peace, a warm peace," he said over and over, slightly changing the wording each time.

Undoubtedly it was not us he was trying to impress with this message but his own people. Israel has already warmly embraced the new relationship with Jordan. Almost 700 Israelis a day — 1,500 in the summer — are crossing the border to tour Jordan, while only a handful of Jordanians are going in the other direction.

When Israelis arrive in Jordan, they find two Israeli TV channels in their hotel rooms. They see a modern capital city with a major highway system that is possibly the cleanest in all the Middle East. And they are warmly received on the streets of Jordan by merchants, most of whom speak English and are only too happy to take shekels, dollars or whatever currency the Israelis carry.

But the trade unions, which control major commerce and the media in Jordan and other Arab countries including Egypt, have resisted moves toward peace with Israel.

If only we could have asked the king if the peace was as warm as he contended or why the Jordan Times would choose to run at the very top of Page One that day a story headlined, "Jewish settler fired on Palestinians." A glance at that day's paper revealed this was hardly the most important story of the day and certainly not worthy of Page One treatment.

But tonight the king would not answer this question or any other. Almost 15 minutes after he began his greetings, the visit was over. We all lined up in single file for the ritual handshake and photo.

As we departed, we were handed a bound copy of the king's most important speeches — a 177-page book, all in Hebrew.

One of the last words he uttered during his speech was that we should "keep in touch" and let him know if there is anything he could do for us during our visit.

Many of the journalists regretted not getting his phone number the next day when they were negotiating their departure from Jordan and return to Israel.

Visitors crossing over from Aqaba to Eilat must get off the bus, pick up all their luggage and walk about a half-mile to the Israeli side where they can board an Israeli bus.

Looking like a bunch of Jewish refugees — albeit with newish Samsonite luggage — this motley crew of rugged journalists trudged that half-mile wondering aloud why an air-conditioned bus wasn't available to improve this warming peace. Where was the king's phone number when we needed it?