This month marks the 15th anniversary of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, signed by prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Abdel Salam al-Majali, respectively. The date offers an occasion to reflect anew on an old Middle East truism: If Israel did not exist, the elites of its neighboring states might have found it necessary to invent it.
At an international conference held earlier this month in Amman, co-sponsored by the Project on Middle East Democracy and the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies, it became apparent that in Jordan's case, as for other Arab states, the reason for that truism has everything to do with domestic pressures.
Much of the talk at the conference centered on Jordan's pressing domestic problems. These were elaborated with candor by speaker after speaker at the two-day gathering, which happened to take place in the former Radisson SAS hotel where 38 people died, when coordinated suicide bombings shook three Amman hotels on November 9, 2005.
Many of Jordan's problems are social. Ever since then-colonial secretary Winston Churchill installed it in power, the Hashemite clan has ruled over a heterogeneous population in a state with artificial borders. (Churchill liked to boast that he created Jordan "on a Sunday afternoon.") Given how deeply intermeshed the Jordanian and Palestinian populations have become by now, it is hard to say precisely what percentage of the country's more than 6 million citizens - the vast majority of whom are Sunni Muslims - is Palestinian. But it is clear that indigenous Jordanians, though a minority, still dominate the country's political and security institutions, as well as the army. Jordan's Palestinians remain for the most part marginalized, underrepresented, second-class citizens. And since Palestinian militants threatened to overthrow the monarchy in September 1970, Palestinians' loyalties have been routinely called into question.
Other problems are more political in nature. Jordan's parliamentary elections in 1989, after decades of martial law, made it one of the first Arab states to make strides toward democracy. Since then, however, progress has stalled. Ahmad Obeidat, Jordan's prime minister in the mid-1980s, expressed to the conference his sense of frustration that reform efforts, some of which he initiated two decades ago, have failed. Jordan's 110-member House of Representatives remains impotent and dominated by the monarchy. The king, who directly appoints the prime minister and cabinet, has the right to dissolve parliament (as in fact King Abdullah did from 2001 to 2003) and to rule by decree when parliament is not in session. It is a punishable offense to criticize the king in public. Election districts are gerrymandered: In some districts an MP represents 2,000 to 3,000 constituents, while another district might have as many as 90,000 voters. It's little wonder, then, that Jordanians profess little faith in their parliament. Obeidat was recently asked whether he had retired from political life. "Everyone involved in political reform in this country is in effect retired," he replied.
Since acceding to the throne in 1999, King Abdullah has often promised reform, but very little has changed. One reason is that he must deal delicately with the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. The party, which opposes Jordan's peace treaty with Israel and seeks the implementation of sharia law in Jordan, is the country's largest opposition group.
King Abdullah also must contend with the anti-Western proclivities of many of his subjects. After Israel, Jordan is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid per capita, much of it military and some of it devoted to democratization initiatives. And yet in a 2006 Zogby International poll, only 10 percent of Jordanians said that American democracy promotion efforts have positively affected their opinion of the United States; 72 percent said the impact has been negative.
Meanwhile, Jordanians still do not enjoy meaningful rights of peaceful demonstration or legal protection from arbitrary arrest. The UN Special Rapporteur on torture found in 2006 that "torture is systematically practiced" by Jordan's General Intelligence Department. There is widespread abuse of state security courts, as well as self-censorship in the press. In March 2008, five Jordanian journalists earned three-month sentences for "insulting the judiciary and commenting on its rulings." Freedom House, a Washington-based nongovernmental research and advocacy organization, downgraded Jordan's civil-liberties rating this year after a series of arrests brought citizens' right to speak freely into question.
What does all of this have to do with Israel? Not much, on the face of it, except that many of the speakers at the conference proved bewilderingly preoccupied with their neighbor to the west. Indeed, they repeatedly found it convenient to invoke perceived Israeli offenses - almost ritualistically so - even when these were not on the agenda. The social scientist Fayiz Suyyagh, for instance, one of the authors of the UN Arab Human Development Report, dilated upon the appalling levels of poverty and illiteracy in Jordan, where the unemployment rate hovers at approximately 30 percent, only to conclude his remarks with harsh criticisms of Israel's settlements and nuclear weapons program.
In this part of the world, such a rhetorical leap is anything but a non sequitur.
Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, was the only participant from Israel at the 2009 Emerging Leaders for Democracy conference in Amman.
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