Behind the Scenes of Jordan's Discreet Ties With Israel

Israel needs Jordan as a security buffer while Jordan needs Israel's water and economic stability.

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FILE PHOTO: Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah, January 2014.
FILE PHOTO: Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah, January 2014.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

A new Jordanian think tank that focuses on Israel is tucked away on the seventh floor of a glass-fronted Amman office building, without a sign announcing the presence of the Center for Israel Studies.

It's the sort of discretion still customary in Jordan when it comes to anything concerning Israel. Broad segments of Jordanian society, where a majority have Palestinian roots, oppose "normalization" with Israel even 21 years after the two countries signed a peace deal.

Yet ties have grown stronger between the governments since the regional rise of Islamic militancy unleashed by the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Israel and Jordan have signed deals on natural gas and water desalination in recent months and Israeli officials say security cooperation is closer than ever.

Israel needs Jordan as a security buffer on its eastern flank, and is putting a premium on helping to ensure the stability of the pro-Western kingdom, which faces potential threats from Islamic State militants who control large areas in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

Jordan, chronically short on water and energy, needs Israel as a supplier to diversify imports and prevent further shocks to its fragile economy. Israel, meanwhile, is considering hiring workers from Jordan's troubled tourism sector in its Red Sea port of Eilat.

"The relations have indeed become closer," said Emmanuel Nahshon, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We see Jordan as a strategic partner, and have every intention of assisting and cooperating."

Jordanian officials are more guarded.

"Jordan's relations with Israel are subject to Jordan's national interests," government spokesman Mohammed Momani said. "The government does not force any Jordanian to engage in relations with Israel, but those who do are not breaking any laws."

Many Jordanians oppose ties with Israel, arguing there can be no normalization as long as Israel occupies war-won lands the Palestinians want for a state. A coalition of Jordanian opposition groups has rallied against the gas deal, under the slogan, "Gas of the Enemy is Occupation."

In such a climate, the Center for Israel Studies quietly began operations, setting up a website this year that publishes Arabic translations of Israeli articles about Israel and its views of the Arab world. The Amman center also produces its own studies about Israel.

Director Abdullah Sawalha said he is trying to provide more accurate information about Israel, arguing that Jordanians know little or have been misinformed.

"Israel exists in this region," he said, adding that "many, many people (in Jordan) have an interest in this subject, but they don't talk about it."

Sawalha, a former employee in Jordan's government spokesman's office, said his center is independent, but declined to reveal sources of funding.

Sawalha said he tries to show Israel in a realistic light, but doesn't hide his politics: He supports the establishment of a Palestinian state in the lands Israel occupied in 1967 and opposes violence.

For the time being, it's "not useful" to advertise the center's location by putting a sign on the door, he said, referring to the prevailing mood in Jordan. The center might adopt a higher profile in coming months, said Sawalha, who has been interviewed by the Jordanian media.

He asked not to disclose the location of 10 Hebrew translators who are based in another Arab country, suggesting they could otherwise face problems.

Another key figure at the study center is Yehiyeh Matalka, who oversees translations from Amman. Matalka said he learned Hebrew by accident, starting in 1993, when Baghdad University mistakenly signed him up for the language instead of German and refused to change the registration.

Sawalha and Matalka, who have both visited Israel, displayed detailed knowledge of Israeli politics and the country's social problems, such as the recent anti-discrimination protests by Jews of Ethiopian origin and the deep divide between secular and religious Jewish Israelis.

The two said they were struck by Israel's robust democracy, but noted that freedom does not extend to Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Sawalha, who does not speak Hebrew, said he's heard Israeli Arabs complain of discrimination, but that he felt that "overall, the Arabs are living in good conditions."

Activists in Jordan's anti-normalization movement view the study center's claims of objectivity with suspicion. Thoraya El-Rayyes, a researcher at the Jordanian National Campaign to Block the Gas Deal with Israel, said she believes the think tank is meant to promote a more positive view of Israel in Jordan. She also questioned the center's unwillingness to disclose sources of funding.

El-Rayyes said the anti-gas group represents a broad range of Jordan's political opposition, from leftists to Islamists. Activists argue the gas deal could make Jordan dependent on Israel and that taxes flowing into Israeli's treasury could finance Jewish settlements and military action against Palestinians.

In a reflection of the public mood, the lower house of Jordan's parliament overwhelmingly rejected the gas deal in December in a non-binding vote. The agreement, which could secure a large chunk of Jordan's energy needs, is hung up over regulatory issues in Israel.

Israeli-Jordan relations also hit a rough spot late last year amid Jewish-Muslim tensions over prayer rights at a key contested shrine in Jerusalem, where Jordan serves as custodian. In a sign of the importance Israel places on its ties with Jordan, the Israeli government moved quickly to restore calm after Jordan temporarily recalled its ambassador.

Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, said he believes some Jordanians are re-evaluating their country's relationship with Israel, but that real peace would likely only be possible if progress is made toward an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

In the meantime, the study center fulfills an important role, he said. "I really admire their courage because it is not easy in an Arab country to speak objectively about Israel," he said.

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