Last week the Jordanian Foreign Minister was on the brink of exploding with anger. "What is the Hezbollah organization that it speaks in the name of Jordan?" he seethed. "After all, we have been negotiating with Israel on the release of our prisoners for the past six months ... Why in the world is Hezbollah jumping on the Jordanian cart and demanding that Israel free the Jordanian prisoners?"
Jordanian Foreign Minister Dr. Marwan Muasher is intelligent and soft-spoken. People who know him find it hard to remember the last time he lost his temper or used sharp language to express his anger. He is a diplomat in every fiber of his being and am ardent supporter of the peace process and of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.
Last week, as a guest in the popular Jordanian television program "Problems and Events," hosted by Oreib Rantawi, Muasher was on the brink of exploding with anger. "What is the Hezbollah organization that it speaks in the name of Jordan?" he seethed. "After all, we have been negotiating with Israel on the release of our prisoners for the past six months ... Why in the world is Hezbollah jumping on the Jordanian cart and demanding that Israel free the Jordanian prisoners?"
Why in the world? Because Hezbollah, unlike Jordan, has a partner in Israel. Israel, showing the usual stinginess, agreed, after exhausting talks with Jordan, to release a small number of the criminal prisoners from the total of 81 Jordanian nationals who are in Israeli custody. Jordan is not especially interested in the criminals among the prisoners; it wants the security prisoners, and especially the four who were convicted of killing Israelis before Israel and Jordan signed their peace treaty, in 1994.
Israel has turned down that request, even though it agreed to release Palestinian prisoners "with blood on their hands" in previous exchanges of prisoners, released Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from prison at the demand of King Hussein of Jordan in return for Amman's release of the Mossad agents who were apprehended in Jordan for the attempted assassination of a senior Hamas official, Khaled Meshal, and is now about to decide on the release of a very large number of prisoners at the demand of Hezbollah.
"Jordan should be given priority," Muasher said rightly. Because whereas Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah declares that "resistance" operations against Israel need no excuse and that Israel's release of the Lebanese prisoners it is holding need not put a stop to that resistance, Muasher asserts that "the Palestinians must stop the suicide bombings and dismantle the weapons workshops."
In the face of Hezbollah's call for resistance to Israel that goes "beyond Lebanon," Jordan states that the Palestinians must take action in the security sphere, and according to Muasher, "the Palestinians are capable of doing a great deal in that sphere."
Jordan's attitude toward Israel, however, is taken for granted here. Jordan has no means of pressure to persuade Israel to change its policy or just to do the royal court a favor. Israel can raise an international storm about an Israeli citizen who is incarcerated in Egypt, but when Jordan makes the same request of Israel, it is cold-shouldered. Hezbollah apparently has a better understanding of what will work with the Israeli government.
Muasher met with his Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, four times and twice with the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, but so far he has not succeeded in getting Israel to budge. Jordan is not making use of German mediators or inter-Arab pressure. Naively, Amman believes that its peace agreement with Israel is in itself enough to induce Israel to make a good-will gesture, one that is far smaller than what Hezbollah is asking and very minor compared to the good-will gesture Israel intended to make to the Palestinians upon the launching of the road map - which, it will be recalled, took place in a ceremony in Jordan.
The government is set to make a decision today about releasing the prisoners who are on Hezbollah's list. Whatever the fine points of the decision, if the deal goes ahead, the list of Jordanian prisoners should be separated from the rest, and they should be released immediately, to Jordan. The government would also be well-advised to separate the list of Palestinian prisoners as well and release them to Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
If the prisoner exchange is not approved, Jordan should receive its nationals in any case, if only to assuage the insult of Israel's readiness to release Jordanian prisoners to a terrorist organization rather than to the country that signed the warmest peace treaty that Israel has with any Arab state.