IN THE middle of the '80s, a German diplomat conveyed to me a surprising message. A member of the Jordanian Royal family would like to speak with me in Amman. At the time, Jordan was still officially at war with us.
Somehow I obtained official permission from the Israeli government. The Germans generously provided me with a passport that was not strictly accurate, and so, with much turning of blind eyes, I arrived in Amman and was lodged in the best hotel.
The news of my presence spread quickly, and after some days it became an embarrassment to the Jordanian government. So I was politely asked to leave, and very quickly, please.
But before that, a high-ranking official invited me to dinner in a very elegant restaurant. He was a well educated, very cultured person, who spoke beautiful English. To my utter amazement, he told me that he was a Bedouin, a member of an important tribe. All my ideas about Bedouins were shattered in that moment.
This dinner stuck in my memory because, in (literally) ten minutes, I learned more about Jordan than in decades of reading. My host took a paper napkin and drew a rough map of Jordan. "Look at our neighbors," he explained. "Here is Syria, a radical secular Ba'athist dictatorship. Then there is Iraq, with another Ba'athist regime that hates Syria. Next there is Saudi Arabia, a very conservative, orthodox country. Next is Egypt, with a pro-Western military dictator. Then there is Zionist Israel. In the occupied Palestinian territories, radical, revolutionary elements are in the ascent. And almost touching us, there is fragmented, unpredictable Lebanon."
"From all these countries," he continued, "refugees, agents and ideological influences stream into Jordan. We have to absorb all of them. We have to perform a very delicate balancing act. If we come too close to Israel, the next day we must appease Syria. If one day we embrace Saudi Arabia, we must kiss Iraq the next. We must not ally ourselves with any one."
Another impression I took with me -- the Palestinians in Jordan (excluding the refugees, whom I did not meet) are perfectly content with the status quo, dominating the economy, getting rich and praying for the stability of the regime.
I WISH that all influential Israelis had received such an eye-opening lesson, because in Israel, the most grotesque ideas about Jordan were -- and still are - in vogue.
The general picture is that of a ridiculous little country, ruled by fierce and primitive Bedouin tribes, while the majority consists of Palestinians who are continually plotting to overthrow the monarchy and assume power.
(Which reminds me of another conversation -- this time in Cairo with the -- then -- acting Foreign Minister, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Copt and one of the most intelligent persons I've ever met. "Israeli experts in Arab affairs are among the best in the world," he told me, "they have read everything, they know everything, and they understand nothing. That's because they have never lived in an Arab country.")
Until the Oslo agreement, the entire Israeli elite subscribed to the "Jordanian Option." The idea was that only King Hussein was able and ready to make peace with us and that he would give us East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank as a present. Hiding behind this misconception was the traditional Zionist resolve to ignore the existence of the Palestinian people and to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state at all costs.
Another version of this idea rests on the slogan "Jordan is Palestine." It was explained to me by Ariel Sharon, nine months before Lebanon War I. "We shall throw the Palestinians out of Lebanon into Syria. The Syrians will push them South into Jordan. There they shall overthrow the king and turn Jordan into Palestine. The Palestinian problem will disappear, and the remaining conflict will become a normal disagreement between two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine."
"But what about the West Bank?" I queried.
"We shall achieve a compromise with Jordan," he answered, "perhaps joint rule, perhaps some kind of functional division."
This idea pops up time and again. This week one of the hyperactive and mentally handicapped right-wing parliamentary thugs submitted another of those bills. It is called "Jordan -- the Nation-State of the Palestinian People."
Apart from the curiosity of one country enacting a law to define the character of another country, it was politically embarrassing. Yet instead of just throwing it out, it was transferred to a sub-committee where the deliberations, such as they are, are secret.