In an about-face, Jordan is reaching out to Hamas amid fears that a collapse of Mideast peacemaking would bring an influx of refugees. But the US ally must walk a delicate line to avoid angering the West.
Hamas is outlawed in Jordan, which has accused the group in the past of trying to destabilize it. But Jordanian intelligence chief Mohammed al-Dahabi held two covert meetings with top Hamas leaders this month, ending a nearly decade-long banishment of the group.
The talks don't mean Jordan, which signed a 1994 peace deal with Israel, is embracing the Islamist group or is turning its back on Arab-Israeli negotiations. But the kingdom has clearly decided it's better to rebuild a relationship with Hamas than keep shunning it as an enemy amid doubts over the peace process' future.
''We're at a crossroads and Jordan must protect itself and its national interests,'' said former Jordanian parliament speaker Abdul-Latif Arabiyat.
Jordan fears that the possible failure of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks backed by the Bush administration, which leaves office early next year, could embolden Hamas in the neighboring West Bank, as well as Muslim extremists in Jordan and across the Mideast. Quiet contacts with Hamas could mollify any fallout for Jordan if that happens.
Also, Jordan is worried a failure of talks will revive Israeli hardliner calls for ejecting West Bank Palestinians to Jordan or for parts of the West Bank to form a confederation with the kingdom as an alternative to an independent state.
Jordan, which ruled the West Bank from 1950 to 1967, strongly opposes such a move, as do Hamas and other Palestinians. Jordan's worries are demographic: Roughly half of its 5.8 million population are of Palestinian descent, from families that were displaced to the kingdom in two wars with Israel since 1948. Jordan is ruled by an elite drawn from its native, Bedouin-rooted clans.
Another flood of Palestinians could overwhelm Jordan and even spark civil unrest. In 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization tried to overthrow Jordan's Hashemite monarchy by setting up a Palestinian government. But Jordan fought a bloody war, known as 'Black September,' as it evicted the PLO from its territory.
Jordan's contacts with Hamas have already irked Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose US-backed Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank and has been battling to end Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip last year.
Abbas sent his interior minister, Abdel Razak Yehiye, to Jordan last week to ''find out what the Jordanians are up to and if their contacts with Hamas meant dropping support for the Palestinian Authority,'' said an Amman-based Palestinian official, insisting on anonymity citing diplomatic sensitivities.
Israeli Embassy spokesman Itai Bardov in Amman called Jordan's contacts with Hamas ''unhelpful to the peace process.''
''We're against any negotiations with Hamas because we regard it as a terrorist movement,'' he said. ''We should find ways to strengthen the Palestinian Authority instead of legitimizing Hamas, which made an illegal military coup in Gaza.''
The United States also considers Hamas a terror organization and has refused contact with it. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after seeing Palestinian and Israeli leaders that there was hope for a Mideast peace deal, but she offered no reason for optimism beyond the fact that the two sides are speaking.
Jordan talks may help free Shalit
Mindful of its allies' worries, Jordan only reluctantly confirmed its meetings with Hamas, days after they occurred.
State Minister for Information Nasser Judeh said Jordan wanted the meetings to continue, and that the discussions so far had focused only on ''pending security issues.''
Deputy Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk said the talks, headed by Hamas official Mohammed Nazzal, tackled a wide range of issues, including the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and ways to ''confront a substitute homeland for the Palestinians in Jordan.''
With the meetings, Jordan may be hoping to help mend the Hamas-Abbas rift and boost the peace process, averting any talk of a Jordanian solution to the Palestinian question. It may also be trying to help in mediating a release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Gaza terror groups more than two years ago. Abu Marzouk said the Jordanian intelligence chief inquired in the meetings about Shalit.
The split between Jordan and Hamas dates back to 1999, when Jordan came under tremendous pressure from the United States and Israel because Hamas leaders on its soil were making statements disparaging peace and ties with Israel and America. Jordan ejected Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal and other top leaders for unspecified ''illegal activities,'' shut down Hamas offices and clamped down on lower-ranking members.