Return of the Jordanian Option

The "Jordanian option," as a concept embodying Jordanian involvement in security and political arrangements in the Palestinian territories, is not a mere flight of fancy.

The Jordanian option refuses to vanish from the agenda. Speculations about renewed Jordanian involvement in the West Bank after the "disengagement" - as untenable and outlandish as they may be - continue to stir up a storm on both sides of the Jordan. Historic residual tensions, crises of identity, family connections and tribal loyalties, national and social rifts, religious ideologies and economic interests - all of these factors serve to connect and disconnect the two banks, and every rumor spreads like wildfire.

It took no more than a hint dropped by Ariel Sharon regarding "a Jordanian presence" in the West Bank to make the commentators, even after two months of denials, dwell relentlessly on what was an abstruse throwaway comment and snowball it into dubious conspiracy theories. On the face of it, if there is a need for such heated denials, "it is a sign that there is something to it, since where there's smoke, there's fire."

In this instance, there is evidently nothing to it, aside from Ariel Sharon's tendency to go fishing in muddy waters. Yet the intensity of the responses does indicate that the "Jordanian option," as a concept embodying Jordanian involvement in security and political arrangements in the Palestinian territories, is not at all a mere flight of fancy. On the contrary, the possibility that it might be implemented grows in direct proportion to the disintegration of the "Palestinian option."

One cannot disregard the continuous process of devaluation in the status of the Palestinian Authority. The ruin of the Palestinian economy and society, the continued spread of the settlements and the "outposts," construction of the separation fence (along any route) and, first and foremost, "unilateral" Israeli activity are restoring the situation to that which existed before Oslo and the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan. The steps taken by Israel, which receive nearly absolute American support, are reducing to nothing the efforts of more than a decade to cultivate a Palestinian option, and raise the dilemma anew: quasi-permanent Israeli rule, which creates a de facto binational state, or an Israeli-Jordanian condominium under the protection of a multinational force.

Either option could produce a truncated "Palestinian state" that would be isolated and divided into cantons, but the two neighbors to the east and to the west would control this "state's" links with the outside world and would leave the Palestinians with only local and municipal administrative authorities.

Essentially, right-wing circles in Israel have succeeded in realizing their vision: There is no room for another state between the desert and the sea; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a border dispute that necessitates special arrangements in the frontier areas of the West Bank (settlements, control of Palestinian cantons, citizenship and passports, movement of goods, security arrangements and border control). Jordan does not even have to maintain a military or bureaucratic presence in the Palestinian cantons; it will rule the population through the joint Israeli-Jordanian control mechanism - at the border crossings, through Jordan residency permits, through the issuance or nonissuance of passports, through the levy of customs and surcharges.

The advantages of the "Jordanian option" for Israel are so obvious as to obviate any need to delineate them, especially given the alternative - a binational state. The Jordanian option ostensibly neutralizes the demographic dangers, since all of the Palestinians can be transformed with mere words into "Jordanians," thereby "solving" the demographic problem.

It is also clear why the Jordanians object to this option so vehemently: It threatens to destroy, in one fell swoop, the internal Jordanian-Palestinian equilibrium that has been so painstakingly built; it is at odds with the king's policy, which might be expressed by the slogan "Jordan first;" and it exposes the regime to attacks from Islamist groups - not to mention Palestinian accusations of betrayal.

But the Jordanians are too weak to successfully contend with U.S.-backed Israeli schemes. Israel has the ability to create a situation in the West Bank that would threaten the stability of the Jordanian regime to such an extent that a certain type of "Jordanian involvement" would be less dangerous to the Jordanians than resisting involvement. And the Palestinians? They could soon find themselves facing an impossible situation: requesting annexation to Jordan, or alternatively - annexation to Israel. They might consider a besieged and segmented Palestinian state to be an even worse option.