The 'Jordanian Option,' the Plan That Refuses to Die

Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur
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Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur

From time to time it rears its head anew, indicating that perhaps a solution to the Palestinian problem is possible only within the Jordanian context. Over the past few weeks, for example, people close to Jordanian monarch King Abdullah have been traveling around the world floating a trial balloon, testing the reactions of world leaders and Palestinians to the idea of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation.

Recently, Abdelsalaam Majali, who was and who may be again the Jordanian prime minister, paid a visit to Israel. In talks with Israeli politicians, Majali spoke of the confederation plan as if it were his own initiative, but one could discern that he had received the blessings of King Abdullah before coming to Israel.

Majali has been trying to win over support for the plan in the United States as well. In a few weeks, a seminar will be held at the Hudson Institute in Washington with the participation of Jordanians and Palestinians, who will discuss the future ties between the Hashemite kingdom and a Palestinian state that will be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Officials in the Palestine Authority will not comment publicly on the ideas raised by Majali, but quite a few senior members of the Fatah leadership are starting to believe that the plan could perhaps be a way out of the dead-end where they have been trapped since the Oslo agreements. There are people close to Abu Mazen who do not reject the idea out of hand, and who feel it is worth studying further - but clandestinely, and without making public the contacts that are being held with Jordan.

The reason for the resurrection of the confederation plan between Jordan and the Palestinians lies in the fear of the decision-makers in Amman: that the struggle between Fatah and Hamas will spill over into Jordanian territory. The civil war in the Gaza Strip lit a warning light in Jordan. The Jordanians are afraid of a stream of Palestinian refugees from the West Bank crossing over the Jordan River. Even today, more than 60 percent of the residents of Jordan define themselves as Palestinians. One of the possible solutions therefore is to create a joint political framework in which Jordan will still have precedence, but a large measure of autonomy will be reserved for the Palestinians to administer their own affairs.

Abdullah has not forgotten the attempt by Yasser Arafat in September 1970 to depose his father, King Hussein. The confederation idea, if it is accepted by the Palestinians, is intended to prevent similar attempts in the future and to ensure the future of the Hashemite kingdom.

According to the plans of the king's assistants, the Hashemite monarch - as the direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed - will serve as the president of the confederation, in addition to his position as the monarch of the Jordanian kingdom; and a federal government will be set up together with an elected parliament that will be composed of both Jordanian and Palestinian representatives.

The security forces will come under the control of the federal government, and this will supposedly allay the fears of Israel about the activities of independent Palestinian military forces. The condition for the establishment of the federation, Abdullah's aides say, is an Israeli-Palestinian agreement over the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Only after that will the independent state be invited to join the proposed confederation.

No one in Israel is commenting publicly on the Jordanian idea, but it is clear that the decision-makers are listening intently to the voices coming from Amman. Shimon Peres stated in his testimony to the Winograd committee that "we have to seek a new structure with the Palestinians. In my heart, I have returned to the conclusion that I always held in life: we must bring in the Jordanians. We cannot make peace only with the Palestinians."

In effect, the diplomatic pendulum in Jerusalem has been swaying back and forth since the Six Day War between the "Palestinian option" and the "Jordanian option."

The Alignment-led governments under Levi Eshkol (1967-1969), Golda Meir (1969-1974) and Yitzhak Rabin (1974-1977) adopted the Jordanian option, under which the solution to the Palestinian problem was to transfer control for most of the territory of the West Bank to the Jordanian monarch. The option was formulated about a year after the end of the Six Day War, and only after the attempts to implement the Palestinian option had failed.

In cabinet meetings after the end of the Six Day War, the proposals from the majority of ministers fluctuated between Palestinian autonomy and an independent state in the West Bank, with those who set the tone - prime minister Eshkol, defense minister Moshe Dayan, labor minister Yigal Allon and information minister Yisrael Galili - all in favor of the Palestinian option. At the cabinet meeting on June 19, 1967, Allon warned against the Jordanian option: "Gentlemen, we entertained thoughts of this in 1948 with everything relating to the Hashemite household, and instead of conquering Jerusalem - something we could have done - and the entire West Bank, a matter of three to four days, we entertained thoughts of the Hashemite monarchy, and we paid for this dearly. I am afraid that this is happening once again. The last thing we must do is to return one inch of the West Bank. We must not view Hussein as existing forever - today it is Hussein, but tomorrow it is Nabulsi, and the day after that some Syrian will take hold of them and following that they will make a defense pact with the Soviet Union and China and we'll find ourselves in a much more difficult position. We are talking about a matter that is not forever, and we are placing it on a phenomenon that is flesh and blood, and perhaps will remain for a maximum of 60 years, if he does not get shot before that."

Allon claimed that the only logical solution that could be an answer to Israel's security needs in the eastern sector was the establishment of a Palestinian state. "I am taking the maximum possibility. Not a canton, not an autonomous region, but an independent Arab state agreed on between us and them in an enclave surrounded by Israeli territory - independent even in its foreign policy."

Eshkol and Dayan also expressed opposition to negotiations with King Hussein, and supported investigating the possibility of implementing an arrangement that would be based on the Palestinian option. At a discussion held by the diplomatic committee of the Alignment party on July 7, 1967, Eshkol made his position clear on the subject of the future of the West Bank. According to his conception, there was no choice in order to ensure Israel's security needs but to continue to control the entire area as far as the Jordan River militarily.

But in order to avoid turning Israel into a bi-national state, the Arab citizens of the West bank must be granted a special status. "I see only a quasi-independent region because the security and the land are in Israeli hands," Eshkol said. "I don't care if they eventually want representation in the United Nations. I started with an autonomous region, but if it turns out that this is impossible, they will get independence."

Galili attacked the Jordanian monarch fiercely during the cabinet meeting of October 17, 1967: "I agree that people have a great deal of pity for the fledgling king who deserves compassion, but it is worth stressing in every way possible that Hussein never expressed an opinion in favor of peace with Israel. (He) participated in the founding gathering of Shukeiry's organization. He shelled Jerusalem. His attitude toward the holy places is well known - it must be stressed who the partner is that the various peace-seekers are nurturing as the ally for negotiations about peace."

In an attempt to implement the Palestinian option, and after it became clear to him that his senior ministers rejected the Jordanian option, Eshkol took a series of steps to examine the possibility of reaching a diplomatic solution. In a discussion held on November 12, 1967, he raised the need for holding diplomatic contacts with the Arabs of the territories. "We must examine the possibilities of setting up a movement for an independent state in the West Bank, to examine which of the leaders it is worth our while meeting, which minister will meet with whom, and perhaps also the prime minister himself."

At the beginning of February 1968, Eshkol decided to hold a series of clandestine talks with leaders from the territories. These talks went on until September. He tried to clarify with his interlocutors the possibility of leading the process in the direction of setting up an autonomy in the West Bank. However, when Eshkol mentioned in a conversation with Hikmet al-Masri and Walid Shak'a from Nablus the idea of bringing about an agreement between Israel and the residents of the West Bank, al-Masri told him the problem would have to be solved with the entire Arab world. "If you claim that you can't act as Palestinians, then we have reached deadlock," Eshkol responded.

During the first few months of 1968, Eshkol vacillated between the desire to give momentum to the idea of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank, and the recognition that it was necessary to speak with the Jordanian king. By the end of that September, Eshkol had approved no fewer than six meetings with Hussein, including those with the participation of foreign minister Abba Eban and labor minister Allon.

Parallel to this, the American administration made it clear to Israel that it was possible to reach an agreement only through Hussein. Hussein is prepared to conduct negotiations, Lyndon Johnson wrote in a letter to Eshkol at the beginning of April 1968, but his position is shaky. Israel has to take into account his plight and show flexibility for his position, the U.S. president said.

One of the developments that apparently had the most influence on the decision to abandon the Palestinian option was a change in Allon's position. When he placed the original "Allon plan" on the cabinet's table on July 27, 1967, he had proposed that a Palestinian autonomy be set up in the West Bank. A vast majority of the ministers rejected the plan when it was brought before the plenary session of the government on July 30. However, the attitude toward the plan gradually began changing, to a large extent also because no alternative plans were submitted.

At the beginning of 1968, Allon began formulating another concept. He decided to abandon the Palestinian option and adopt instead what would later be known as the "Jordanian option." The idea raised by Allon was simple: Instead of wrestling with the complex issue of implementing autonomy, the territory would be handed over to Jordan, and in this way Israel would be freed of the need to deal with the Palestinian problem. Allon did not make changes to the map he had sketched in July 1967 (except for adding a passage to join Jordan to the West bank in the area of Jericho), proposing that the Jordan Valley remain in Israeli hands, and that the same should be true for Gush Etzion, part of the Hebron foothills and united Jerusalem. All the remainder would be handed over to King Hussein.

An important discussion about this issue took place at a meeting of the Alignment's diplomatic committee on April 20, 1968. On the agenda was the anticipated meeting of Abba Eban with King Hussein. All those who spoke supported holding the meeting, and most of them - with the exception of Dayan and Shimon Peres who was the secretary of the Rafi party at the time - expressed backing for the "Allon plan" as the basis of the policy.

Toward the end of September 1968, the decisive meeting with Hussein was held. This meeting, which took place in London, was attended both by Eban and Allon. King Hussein was accompanied by his close adviser, Ziad Rifai. Eban outlined for the king the six principles that summed up Israel's approach to a diplomatic agreement with Jordan, which included the demilitarization of the West Bank, the deployment of Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley, a united Jerusalem under Israeli control, and the establishment of a joint authority for the refugees. Allon also showed him the map from his plan, and told Hussein that "these are not temporary corrections that will be valid so long as you are king and as long as I and Abba Eban are alive, but arrangements that will be valid for generations to come - you lost the war and you must face the consequence."

"My problem," Hussein replied, "is how to explain the solution to my nation if it is not a solution that will be acceptable to the Arab awareness."

A few days later, Rifai presented a document with Hussein's six principles, as a response to the six principles outlined by Eban. Hussein wrote inter alia that the Jordanians accept the principles of UN Resolution 242, including the statement that territories cannot be acquired by force. He said that they were aware that changes would have to be made in the cease-fire lines, but that these changes would have to be done on the basis of mutuality. Turning to the question of Jerusalem, he said that the most the Jordanians would be able to agree to would be the recognition of Israel's rights over the places holy to Judaism. The Jordanian document ends by saying that their ability to contribute to the arrangement is totally dependent on their ability to control the internal situation in Jordan, and to explain the agreement to the Arab world. Therefore, the Jordanian document added, any proposal that was discussed would have to be such as the Arab world was prepared to accept, and not something that was forced upon them.

This meeting made it clear to the decision-makers in Israel that the Jordanian option was not feasible. They understood that Hussein did not want to be, and most likely also could not be, the first Arab leader that signed a peace agreement with Israel. Nevertheless, not much time had elapsed until Israel's commitment toward Hussein's regime was put to the test. In September 1970, that "Black September" when Yasser Arafat went to war against Hussein's regime, it was Israel that came to the aid of the king and, in fact, saved his throne.

On March 15, 1972, in an attempt to prevent what seemed to him to be the next step of the Israeli government - the annexation of the West Bank - Hussein proposed that the two sides of the Jordan become united in what would be the "Joint Arab Kingdom" which, of course, he would head. The Palestine Liberation Organization turned down his offer without hesitation. In June 1977, Hussein once again raised the idea of a federation; this time it was to be composed of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan and an autonomy in the West Bank. This proposal, too, was swiftly rejected by Arafat.

In 1987, Peres, who was then foreign minister, attempted to revive the Jordanian option. After secret talks with Hussein at the London home of their mutual friend, Lord Victor Mishkin, the "London agreement" was drawn up but it was torpedoed by then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. Its principles were to a large extent similar to those that had been presented to the king in September 1968. Incidentally, Rifai was also present at this meeting, this time in his capacity as Hussein's prime minister. Then in December 1987 the first intifada broke out, and one of its consequences was Hussein's decision in July 1988 to cut off ties with the West Bank.

The first circle of the Jordanian option, which began in June 1967, was completed on September 13, 1993, with the singing of the Oslo agreements. The government headed by Yitzhak Rabin, who had been the chief of staff in 1967, brought back the Israeli policy with regard to the Palestinian problem to its starting point of June 1967, and to the Palestinian option. In Rabin's decision to recognize the legitimacy of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, and to sign an agreement with it, came a clear strategic decision between the two basic orientations that had accompanied Israeli policy in the 25 years that preceded the Oslo Accords.

The peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was signed in October 1994. King Hussein, who three decades earlier had been wary of being the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel, followed in the footsteps of Anwar Saadat. On the face of it, the process had been completed and the die had been cast in favor of the Palestinian option, but the second intifada cut short this process, and once again the Jordanian option was pushed into the vacuum that had been created in the peace process beginning in September 2000. The second circle of the Jordanian option had been opened up once again.