Although the coronavirus crisis has dominated the news in Jordan recently, with the government in Amman imposing a nationwide curfew to stop its spread, one of the underreported stories of late has been the deterioration of Jordanian-Israeli relations following President Donald Trump’s release of his Peace to Prosperity plan in January. While these ties have been troubled for some time, they are headed into “deep freeze mode,” in the words of current Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz. This is especially significant now because the Trump plan has essentially endorsed the long-held Israeli Likud agenda of annexation of settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley and has given encouragement to right-wing elements in Israel.
Jordan, whose Palestinian community constitutes about 60 percent of the population, is particularly sensitive to developments concerning the Israeli/Palestinian situation. Although King Abdullah II is not likely to break diplomatic relations with Israel, he cannot afford to sit back quietly while annexation announcements and plans proceed. Indeed, he and his officials have given interviews to western media to the effect that such measures would lead to instability not only in Jordan but also in the wider region.
US policymakers, who have long considered Jordan an important, pro-West ally in the region, need to think long and hard about the effects of the peace plan on the Hashemite kingdom. It behooves them to encourage the Israelis to desist from implementing the annexation agenda which, among other things, will have profoundly negative repercussions in Jordan. Although such annexation plans are on hold at this time in Israel because of the post-election political maneuvering, they are likely to resurface once a new government is formed.
Even before the announcement of the Trump plan in late January, Jordanian-Israeli relations had been highly aggravated for several years. A number of events increased tensions such as the killing of a Jordanian judge by Israeli soldiers during a dispute at the Allenby Bridge in 2014, the killing of two Jordanians by an Israeli security guard at the Israeli embassy in Amman in 2017, and Israeli security measures such as placing metal detectors at the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem (considered the third holiest site in Islam), which led to large-scale protests and an eventual rescinding of the order.
Even before the announcement of the Trump plan in late January, Jordanian-Israeli relations had been highly aggravated for several years.
King Abdullah voiced opposition to these Israeli actions in part to mollify his citizens’ anger, but some elements of the Jordanian population, particularly those citizens of Palestinian descent, see him as too deferential and too dependent on Israel. For example, the Jordanian government’s decision to import natural gas from Israel has been highly unpopular in the kingdom and led to periodic protests in recent months.
At the same time, the Jordanian economy is struggling. Unemployment is at least 19 percent. There has also been popular anger over corruption and austerity measures, leading to demonstrations over the past two years, with some protesters even chanting slogans against the king. Moreover, Jordan’s hosting of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees has also been a strain on the country despite the financial aid it has received from the international community to cope with the influx. The government has long feared the combustible mix of economic frustrations and highly emotive anti-Israeli sentiments, coming together to produce instability in the country that could endanger the Hashemite monarchy.
Hence, it was not a surprise last autumn that the Jordanian government refused to renew annexes to the 1994 peace treaty with Israel that allowed Israel to lease some farmland in the Jordan Valley. This decision was popular with the Jordanian people.
In an interview with the French media outlet France 24 on January 13, 2020, which was reprinted in Jordan, King Abdullah said there had been no bilateral communication between Jordan and Israel for some time. He also expressed his opposition to the rhetoric—particularly on annexation—surrounding the Israeli election campaign at that time, and warned that it was “creating tremendous concern to all of us in the region, because they’re moving … to completely unchartered territory for all of us, and can only create more instability .…” The king also said Israeli talk on annexing parts of the West Bank “creates a lot of doubt in many of us where … certain Israeli politicians are going.”
…Made Worse by the Trump Plan
Jordan was deeply alarmed by the unveiling of Peace to Prosperity in late January because the plan confirmed the kingdom’s worst fears. President Trump has endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans for annexing parts of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. His policies seemed to negate the possibility of a two-state solution even though the plan supposedly holds out the prospects for one amid numerous caveats and restrictions.
Not helping matters were Netanyahu’s comments made during a tree planting ceremony at a Jordan Valley settlement on February 10, during which he said: “We will do this [annexation] … with the Americans because what we are doing is not unilateral.”
In early March 2020, Jordanian Prime Minister Razzaz, in an interview with CNN, sharply criticized the Trump plan, which he said was not discussed with Jordan prior to its unveiling. He then asked rhetorically: “Is the world ready to accept this? Do we realize where we’re pushing Israel, Palestine, the region and the world?” As for the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, Razzaz said that when it was signed in 1994, the “Jordanian hope, and even the Israeli [hope] at the time, was for it to lead to a comprehensive solution at the level of the region and sustainable peace … Unfortunately, none of this materialized.”
Although most Jordanians would not be unhappy with such a freeze in relations, there is a sense of unease in Jordan where this is all headed.
Although most Jordanians would not be unhappy with such a freeze in relations, and Razzaz was plainly directing his message to Israel, the United States, and the international community, there is clearly a sense of unease in Jordan where this is all headed. Many Jordanians fear that the right-wing in Israel might push for the “Jordan is Palestine” idea and start to expel Palestinians from the West Bank. Annexation of parts of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley would be a first step in this process, in the minds of many.
Feelings of Vulnerability
Jordan currently feels neglected not only because it was not consulted about the Trump plan but because it sees dangers from other parts of the region. King Abdullah, in the same France 24 interview, warned against the dangers emanating from the so-called Islamic State, even in its weakened form, as well as from Iran and its proxies in the area. With a growing population and limited economic resources, in the past Jordan has relied on the friendship of other countries, even Israel, to help it maintain stability. But with the United States under the Trump Administration bending over backwards to cater to the Israeli right wing, and with Israeli politicians, especially caretaker Prime Minister Netanyahu, touting annexation of Palestinian lands, Jordanian interests seem to be inconsequential.
An unnamed Jordanian official told The Washington Post’s David Ignatius this month that “There’s a sense of momentary arrogance [among Israelis and Americans], which is unwise.”
Although King Abdullah’s legitimacy rests in part on his family’s lineage to the Prophet Muhammad and his Hashemite tribe’s alliances with other tribal federations dating back to the Arab Revolt during World War I, it also rests on his ties with western powers, particularly the United States, as well as his espousal of Palestinian aspirations.
At this point, the Trump Administration sees Jordan chiefly as a way to shore up the Jerusalem aspect of the peace plan—reiterating what was already in place, that King Abdullah would remain the custodian of all Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem. This, coupled with the reality that the Israeli leadership is more concerned with annexation of parts of the West Bank than with Jordan’s stability, has made Jordanian officials feeling particularly vulnerable.
The Trump Administration sees Jordan chiefly as a way to shore up the Jerusalem aspect of the peace plan.
In the past, Israeli officials saw the stability of Jordan as being in their own security interest—that an unstable state on their eastern flank could pose a danger to Israel’s well-being. Hence, they would be conscious, at least to some degree, about how certain policies would affect Jordan. But that sentiment seems to have dissipated under the current the Israeli leadership. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lamented to an interviewer recently that “a one-sided annexation” that is in the works “will risk a Jordanian reaction that is going to be unfriendly, and seriously undermine our relations.”
Jordan Valley Repercussions
There are currently about 10,000 settlers and 80,000 Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley, an area that Netanyahu and his right-wing allies want to annex. If annexation were to proceed, it would not only upset the calm that has generally prevailed in this particular area but would preclude any direct Jordanian link to the remainder of the West Bank. As a recent Wall Street Journal investigative article noted, “Palestinians say the entire Jordan Valley is part of their historic homeland, and without it there can be no viable Palestinian state. Controlling the valley would give them an independent border with Jordan, space for their exploding urban population to grow, and significant economic potential for farming and religious tourism.”
Moreover, a prominent Palestinian businessman, Ammar Aker, the CEO of a major telecommunications firm in Ramallah, noted that there are extensive economic links between Jordan and the West Bank and that any annexation of the Jordan Valley will cause “significant, unpredictable disruption.”
It is likely that annexation of the valley would spark serious demonstrations in Jordan for these reasons, which the Jordanian government would want to avoid. Although Netanyahu wants to move full-speed ahead with annexation if he were to remain prime minister, his main rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party, has taken a more equivocal stance, saying he would do so “in coordination with the international community.” But given that Gantz has endorsed the Trump peace plan, which supports Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, his equivocation is not reassuring to the Palestinians and Jordanians. Perhaps if he enters into a coalition government with the Arab Joint List, which won 15 seats in the recent Israeli election and is strongly opposed to the Trump plan, he might backtrack on this position.
Recommendations for US Policy
After the unveiling of the Peace to Prosperity plan at the White House in late January, Jared Kushner, as head of the plan’s team, put pressure on Israeli officials not to proceed immediately with any annexation of settlements in the West Bank and Jordan Valley during the course of the Israeli election campaign and its aftermath. The purported reason for the delay was to make sure that a US and Israeli team would work out the details of annexation. However, the more likely reason was to give the plan some time to be analyzed and hopefully endorsed by friendly Arab countries, knowing that annexation right off the bat would be highly controversial. That the Arab foreign ministers subsequently and unanimously rejected the plan should give Kushner and other US officials a sense that proceeding with annexation after a new Israeli government is formed will only inflame the situation and do nothing to advance a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Abandoning talk of annexation would also help King Abdullah maintain stability amid all the other problems he is confronting, such as the weak economy and the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, it would help his standing inside Jordan, as the population would likely believe that he used his influence with Washington to put a halt to such an undesirable plan. US officials should emphasize to Trump that the stability of this friendly Arab state, one that has cooperated with the United States on many counterterrorism operations and maintained a peace treaty with Israel despite myriad problems, is at stake. Although Trump, with an eye to the November election, clearly wants to contrast his absolute support for Israel with that of the Democrats, who are critical of Netanyahu, he needs to be reminded that Israeli/Palestinian issues have reverberations next door in Jordan, a country that the United States cannot afford to lose as a friend. Perhaps these officials should underscore to Trump that there would be political costs to him if he is saddled with the blame of “the president who lost Jordan.”