Text size

Next month will mark 10 years since the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. At first glance, the story appears to be that there is no story: Security relations are good, diplomatic relations slightly less so, despite the mutual loathing for Yasser Arafat. The border is quiet, and the threat of Saddam Hussein to the rear has been removed from the states on both banks of the Jordan River.

But in fact this quiet is deceptive, because the deep waters in and around Jordan are liable to sweep the Hashemite regime into an existential struggle. President Bush's ambitious plan to implant democracy in an Arab state will, in the end, also reach the palace in Amman, which today is Washington's loyal ally. According to Bush's logic, King Abdullah II must also eventually transfer the reins of government to the Palestinian majority.

The Israeli defense establishment has close ties with its Jordanian counterpart, but neither is immune from the surprises thought up by the king. The Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence community have already gotten used to the fact that senior officials in Amman, whose positions appeared unassailable, can be removed from office with no prior warning. Abdullah supplied additional proof of this last week, with a sudden purge of the top ranks of the air force.

Abdullah's father, King Hussein, died in February 1999, a few weeks after pushing his brother Hassan - who had been slated to replace him for decades - down the line of succession and replacing him with Abdullah, his eldest son. Hussein thus restored the traditional line of succession, from which he had deviated during Abdullah's childhood for fear that the kingdom would be left without a leader if assassins succeeded in killing him.

At the start of his reign, Abdullah said that his father had erred by allowing Hassan to remain as a competing power center who espoused different policies. Hassan was stripped of all his authority, but a guest who joined him for a trip through the streets of Amman last week discovered that the king's ousted uncle is deluged with waves of popular sympathy - perhaps a hint of dissatisfaction with Abdullah.

Abdullah's decision to shuffle the deck in Jordan's air force was discovered by chance, when a senior officer in a foreign army dialed the direct line of his colleague, the air force commander. This was not just any commander; it was Prince Feisal, the king's next oldest brother. And not just any brother, but one who shared the same mother, Muna, Hussein's first wife.

Feisal, who learned to fly at Hussein's knees, rose through the officer ranks of the Jordanian air force by his own princely hands. Abdullah made him deputy commander of the force, and then in 2002 he made him commander.

To the foreign officer's surprise, his phone call was answered by an unfamiliar voice. It turned out that Abdullah had suddenly - though in keeping with the custom of his court - decided to fire Feisal as air force commander. Feisal is far from retirement age. He is 40, whereas the army's chief of staff, Khaled Sarayrah, is 60. Feisal's deputy was also sent packing, and an anonymous colonel, Ahmed Mohammed Bis, who had previously headed the operations division, was quietly made head of the air force.

At the start of this week, following a complete media blackout, one of the Jordanian papers published on its back page congratulations to the incoming and outgoing air force commanders. A Jordanian official who volunteered a personal interpretation said with a smile that this was not an ouster, but a kick upstairs: "The prince was promoted a rank, from major general to lieutenant general." That is still one rank below chief of staff, and two below the rank of field marshal that Abdullah bestowed on himself.

Feisal is not in line of succession to Abdullah. The crown prince is their young half-brother, Prince Hamza, Hussein's beloved son by his last wife, Queen Noor. To appease the Hamza camp, Abdullah named him crown prince at the expense of his own son, Prince Hassan, who is now 10. As Hassan grows older, the tension between him and Hamza will also grow - because Hamza can also be ousted, and the story of Hassan and Abdullah is liable to repeat itself with Hamza and Hassan.

In any such internal conflict, an important factor will be the support of the kingdom's various power centers, first and foremost that of the General Intelligence Service, which combines the powers of a security service with those of a police unit that combats corruption.

The head of this service, General Saad Kheir, also heads the National Security Council, and serves as Abdullah's security advisor. Kheir has recently been embroiled in a dispute with the prime minister, Faisal al-Fayez, who also holds the defense portfolio, over the question of how to treat the Muslim Brotherhood, a former ally of the Hashemite regime whose slide into terrorism has turned it into a rival and perhaps even a threat.

The forces in this battle are not evenly matched: Fayez, a loyalist of the king, rose from the ranks of the palace's protocol office and has no troops. Kheir is acceptable to America's intelligence community, and even though Abdullah dared to oust and humiliate Kheir's predecessor as head of General Intelligence, Samih Battikhi, it is doubtful that the king could permit himself another test of his power.