A Monarch's Dire Warning About the Middle East

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King Abdullah II of Jordan

Striding past ceremonial Circassian guards into a sitting room at Basman Palace, King Abdullah II is looking fresh and energetic, as if he has just come from another spin around town on his treasured Harley-Davidson. But his natural ebullience masked an uncharacteristic inner gloom that deepened this summer when the Middle East was plunged into yet another conflict with the Israeli-Hizballah war in Lebanon.

As the 44-year-old monarch settled into a stuffed sofa for a 1-hour TIME interview for a story to appear in the coming week's magazine, he drew a dark picture of a region consumed by conflicts old and new, threatened by emerging Sunni-Shiite tensions and at risk of being completely destabilized if the U.S. attacks Iran. "I believe the Lebanese war dramatically opened all our eyes to the fact that if we don't solve the Palestinian issue, the future looks pretty bleak for the Middle East," he said. "I'm one of the most optimistic people you'll come across. For the first time, I started becoming pessimistic towards the region."

Without urgent diplomatic efforts that yield tangible results to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians, "I don't think there will ever be a Palestinian state," he said. "By 2007, if we don't see something that reassures all of us — the international community, the Israelis, the Arabs and the Palestinians — then I think we are doomed to another decade or decades of violence between Israelis and Arabs, which affects everybody."

Abdullah seemed careful not to criticize Washington directly, but he declared his disappointment that "people around the world in a way just don't care anymore. There is a feeling I get in the international community, 'You know what, let the Israelis and Arabs have a go at each other.' Are we going to resign our region for another decade of violence, or are we going to put this to rest once and for all?" In Jordan's view, he said, "There needs to be some sort of Palestinian integral, geographic state, today and not tomorrow."

But moderates pushing for a peaceful settlement, the King complained, have been "neutralized" because of the stagnation in Arab-Israeli negotiations. "I don't think people are taking us seriously," he said. "A lot of the moderate countries are feeling isolated. Today the street is saying, 'You know, we tried the peace process. We keep hoping that the Americans and the international community will step forward, we keep hoping that Israel will make a difference and reach out to the Arabs. They are only beginning to see that the only way you can get America's attention or Israel's attention is through confrontation."

The King expressed concern that the region's troubles could multiply with the crises over Iraq and Iran. He expressed fears of civil war in Iraq "if it continues to spiral," and while voicing concern about Iran's influence, he cautioned against the thought of American military action to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. "I don't think the Middle East could afford another war," he said. "A war with Iran would sort of open a Pandora's Box and one that I don't think the Middle East would recover from."