Path of Least Cost: Assuaging Public Protests in Jordan

Once again, events in Gaza are showing up in the form of indignant protests in Jordan that, if not properly handled, could lead to serious challenges for the Jordanian monarchy. Over the last few days, protestors against the ongoing genocide in Gaza have taken to Amman’s streets, specifically those around the Israeli embassy, calling on Jordan to abrogate its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Many also have demanded opening “the border” to the West Bank. At various times since last October, security forces have accommodated protests in order to absorb the public anger over the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, but now security forces are beginning to lose their restraint and to arrest demonstrators and activists.

The Jordanian government is in a quandary over how to maintain a public posture of criticizing Israel’s conduct of the war while remaining on good terms with the United States—Jordan’s largest aid provider—and holding on to what has always been a cold peace with Israel. In January, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi was among a rare few Arab officials who publicly supported South Africa’s case of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Last November, Safadi announced that Jordan would not sign an energy-for-water agreement with Israel, and the government withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest of the Israeli war on Gaza.

Jordan’s relations with the United States figure most prominently in the country’s calculations regarding what to do vis-à-vis Israel’s war on Gaza. In fact, it is in Washington that Jordan’s King Abdullah II finds a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, despite the US commitment to Israel’s military superiority and to protecting Israel from criticism. King Abdullah’s close relationship with President Joe Biden and the Hashemite Kingdom’s friendly audience in the halls of Congress—which appropriates more than $1.5 billion in economic and military aid for the country every year—are irreplaceable privileges and cannot be lightly sacrificed.

Yet, despite care in Jordan about protecting close bilateral relations, the government finds that it must voice contrary views to those held by the Biden administration. In February, King Abdullah stood next to President Biden and decried the situation in Gaza, declaring that “[w]e need a lasting cease-fire now,” and that “[t]his war must end” just as the White House was still refusing even to utter the word “ceasefire.” Safadi’s support for the ICJ genocide case against Israel clearly contradics the American position that the lawsuit is “meritless, counterproductive, and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever,” according to White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby.

Jordan was among the first countries to begin airdrops of aid into Gaza, flying 62 such missions by March 28. Inefficient and insufficient, these humanitarian deliveries are the government’s way of assuaging its angry public—many of whom are of Palestinian origin—and telling them that Jordan is doing its best to alleviate the suffering in Gaza, given the reality that it cannot do much about Israel’s genocidal war. The reality of famine in northern Gaza that is slowly spreading to the center and south of the Strip is a great source of worry for the Jordanian government and people. This concern is deepened by Israel’s recent move to bar UNRWA—the premier agency dedicated to providing services to Palestinian refugees in Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon—from delivering desperately needed aid to the starving, homeless, and dying in northern Gaza. Using a broad paintbrush, Israel has condemned the entire organization by accusing about a dozen of its employees of aiding the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023, an action that prompted the United States and many other western governments to pause UNRWA’s funding. No clear public evidence has yet been produced for the Israeli charge. Furthermore, Congress’s Fiscal Year 2024 foreign aid spending legislation, which Biden signed into law on March 23, bars US funding for UNRWA through March 2025.

Then there is the danger Israel’s right-wing politicians and political forces pose to Jordan’s role as custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. These politicians’ plans, proclamations, and activities about and in al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) housing al-Aqsa Mosque threaten what for decades has been a prevailing “status quo” in Jerusalem, and which gave responsibility for the non-Jewish holy sites to Jordan. Indeed, Israeli religious nationalists have for quite some time attempted to diminish the autonomy of the Sanctuary and to impose a new status quo that allows them to pray there, in violation of agreed principles, and to for all intents and purposes prepare the ground for rebuilding the Jewish Third Temple ahead of the appearance of the Messiah.

Jordan is thus caught between the conflicting factors of domestic public sentiment supporting Palestinians in Gaza, Gaza’s dire situation of famine and genocide, a state responsibility to Jerusalem, and a completely biased American position in support of Israel. Unfortunately, there are no apparent escape routes for the monarchy and government—weakened as they are by economic problems and dependence on outside assistance—from what is obviously a very confusing set of choices to address the Gaza conflict. Threatening to abrogate the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty is unlikely to have an impact on Israel’s genocidal war against Gaza. More firmly asserting Jordan’s responsibility to Jerusalem against a messianic Zionist cohort beyond calling on Israel to respect agreements needs commitment from a weak Arab political order that so far has done little to stand up to the Zionist state. Breaking with a United States that appears careless about its friends in the Middle East—like the Hashemite Kingdom—is absolute folly.

The path of least resistance and the lowest cost is likely to be a continuation of the current course of public support for the Palestinians of Gaza and excoriation of Israeli policies and practices there. On the other hand, Jordan is likely to manifest this through participation in international forums to warn against what is going on in Gaza and propose acceptable compromises, as well as provide humanitarian airdrops over Gaza. Anything more could not only be onerous at this time, but also dangerous for the monarchy in the long run.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.