David Miller
The Media Line
February 17, 2011 - 1:00am

A call by Jordan’s justice minister to free the jailed killer of seven Israeli girls has soured the Hashemite Kingdom’s relations with Israel, but experts said they expect the ties to weather the diplomatic storm.

The minister, Hussein Mjali, a well known oppositionist, was appointed to the post just last week and immediately began making inflammatory remarks. On Wednesday he called Israel a “terrorist state” and an “enemy of the kingdom.”

He made these statements after Israel summoned Jordan’s representative for a diplomatic tongue-lashing this week after Mjali joined a rally calling for the release of a Jordanian soldier serving a 25-year sentence for gunning down a group of school girls visiting a border park in 1997, killing seven and wounding six others.

Cpl. Ahmad Daqamseh was not given the death penalty because he was deemed mentally unstable. Mjali, who served as Daqamseh's attorney during his trial, said he was "a hero."

"The Israeli-Jordanian relations are deeper than these statements and the government doesn’t really play a role in them," Yasser Abu-Hilaleh, a Jordanian journalist and political analyst with Al-Ghad daily, told The Media Line. "The real relations are based on a triangle including the royal palace, the General Intelligence Directorate (GDI) and Israel."

Mjali's bellicose statements come at a sensitive time for Jordan, which has witnessed social upheaval inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In an unprecedented event, King Abdullah's convoy was reportedly attacked on Sunday by angry tribesmen protesting land confiscation, forcing his bodyguards to shoot and injure four men. The King was attempting to diffuse tensions with Jordanian tribesmen, traditionally loyal to the monarchy, who had openly expressed anger with the opulent lifestyle of the King and his wife, queen Rania.

Abu-Hilaleh said the appointment of oppositionists such as Mjali and Taher Al-Adwan, editor of the independent daily Al-Arab Al-Yawm to Jordan's new cabinet was an attempt by the King to quell public anger and show he has cooled relations with Israel. This was only a cosmetic change, Abu-Hilaleh added, saying there was no chance Jordan would switch sides to "the confrontational axis".

Minister Mjali stated Monday that the release of Daqamseh would be the first issue on his agenda, but a Jordanian government spokesman denied that the matter was ever raised with the new government. He added that Mjali was only expressing his personal opinion which did not reflect government policy.

"Even Daqamseh's early release will not harm Israeli-Jordanian relations," Abu-Hilaleh said. "Israel negotiates the release of Hamas prisoners with blood on their hands all the time."

Beyond the dressing down of the Jordanian ambassador, Israel's feeble response to Mjali's inflammatory statements revealed the weakness of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, local commentators said. King Abdullah has publicly blamed Netanyahu for stagnation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and has reportedly refused to meet with the premier recently. King Abdullah told Netanyahu during their last meeting in Jordan last July that unilateral steps by Israel were unhelpful in reigniting the peace process, a reference to Israel's decision to end a ten-month long freeze in new construction projects in Israeli settlements.

Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University specializing in Arab politics said that Israel was justified for being outraged by Mjali's comments, but Jordanians were currently more preoccupied with internal matters than with their relations with Israel.

"The regime is trying to prevent the Tunisian or Egyptian experience from happening in Jordan," he told The Media Line. "The Jordanians are internally focused right now."

Dr. Ephraim Kam, deputy head of the Institute for National Security Studies, echoed Brown, saying that Mjali's statements would not affect Israeli-Jordanian relations.

"[Daqamseh] was arrested so many years ago and served his time," Kam told The Media Line. "He will be released sooner or later, with or without a public statement."

Kam criticized Israel's treatment of the incident, however, putting the blame on Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was currently at odds with Netanyahu.

"The Jordanian representative should have been summoned quietly, not publicly in plain view of the media," Kam said. "But this is typical of our foreign minister's conduct."

A Jordanian journalist, speaking off record since criticizing the King and his family was illegal in Jordan, said Mjali's statements served the King well by deflecting attention from the opulent lifestyle of the royal family.

"The royal family maintains the lifestyle of Emirate Sheikhs," the journalist told the Media Line. "Both the King and the Queen have their own private jets, and the Queen is always dressed in top fashion."

"Jordan's defense budget is higher today than it was before the peace treaty with Israel was signed, even though the army is completely defensive," he added. "I'm convinced that half of the budget goes to the pockets of the royal family."

In contrast, Abdullah’s father, the late King Hussein, was so humbled by the killing of the Israeli school girls by one of his soldiers that he made a personal visit to their families, bowed before them and asked for their forgiveness.


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