Crossing the Allenby Bridge back into Israel, after visiting Jordan just after the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, an occasion that was not celebrated either in Israel or in Jordan, I felt despondent. Jordan’s monarch recently depicted his country's relationship with Israel as being "at an all-time low."
Senior Jordanian officials haven't yet entirely given up hoping Israel will wake up to the need to preserve relations with Jordan, rather than undermining them. But they also know that widely-flagged future moves by a right-wing Israeli government - not least, West Bank annexation – could be critically destabilizing for Jordan, and a lethal blow for bilateral relations.
During an Americans for Peace Now study trip, I met with senior Jordanian officials, top advisors to King Abdullah II, current foreign minister Ayman Safadi, and former foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S. and Israel, Marwan Muasher. I spoke with experts on Jordanian-Israeli relations and with Jordanian citizens. I read the writing on Amman’s walls – both literally and figuratively.
Both countries have grievances, and both could do more to improve relations, but the power-balance is asymmetrical, and Israel bears much of the responsibility.
Ephraim Halevy, Israel’s former head of Mossad and chief Israeli architect of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, recently said: "I see great danger to the peace treaty. I think that the danger comes not from the Jordanians but from us, from Israel…Over the years, Israeli governments have distanced themselves from Jordan; they have also demonstrated contempt toward Jordan while Jordan’s geo-political situation has greatly worsened."
The relationship between the two countries rests today almost entirely on one leg: tight security cooperation. Obviously, security is no small matter. For both countries, security is a chief interest, and it is important to emphasize that all the Jordanian officials with whom we spoke made a point of depicting the security cooperation with Israel as "excellent."
But for Jordan, national security is more than counterterrorism, shared intelligence and other types of military coordination. It’s economic stability, domestic social coherence, and some form of trajectory toward resolving the Palestinian problem through a two-state solution.
Jordanian officials saw peace with Israel, and normalization of relations, as a key national security asset long before 1994. The Oslo promise of Israeli-Palestinian peace gave Jordan the opportunity it had been looking for to take a step that previously would have been dangerously destabilizing. The late King Hussein pursued the peace treaty with Israel once he was reassured that a reliable path toward Israeli-Palestinian peace had been paved.
Today, his son is struggling to navigate relations with Israel through the wreckage of the failed Oslo process and the damage the Netanyahu government and the Trump administration are causing in the West Bank.
But even short of resuscitating the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process, much can be done to improve Israel’s relations with Jordan.
Jordan’s leaders emphasize that the Hashemite Kingdom is committed to the peace treaty and wishes to respect and enhance it. "Our commitment is unwavering," Foreign Minister Safadi told us. The problem, he and others said, is that Israel takes for granted the bilateral peace accord and the price that Jordan pays for Israel’s hollowing it out.
Senior Jordanians expressed a sense of humiliation, disappointment and national insult, as well as envy for their neighbor to the west.
Jordanians officials are desperate for Israel to help Jordan’s economy. "The economy is key to sustaining peace," Safadi said. "You must show people that there is a peace dividend." Jordan’s meager economy ($40 billion GDP in 2017) is a fraction of Israel’s ($350 billion). Its annual exports in 2017 were $7.5 billion of mostly fertilizers, phosphates and textiles, while Israel exported almost 60 billion dollars’ worth of mostly high-tech products.
Unemployment in Jordan is around 20 percent. In Israel it’s in the lower single digits. Burdened by a flow of refugees from Syria, increasingly reliant on foreign aid and entirely dependent on imported energy, Jordan is desperately searching for a horizon of economic prosperity.
Jordanian hopes for joint infrastructure projects with Israel such as the shared canal between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, or a shared airport in the south, were dashed. Even when it comes to relatively small endeavors, they say, Israel is not forthcoming.
Jordan has asked, to no avail, that Israel allow it to increase its exports to the Palestinian market from $100 million to $400 million annually (Israeli exports to the West Bank are almost $4 billion per year). "We got a lot of promises (from Israel) but nothing materialized," Safadi said.
But Jordan’s chief concern regarding Israel’s attitude is political. Jordan’s leaders complain that Israel’s inflammatory policies are stoking tensions among Jordan’s Palestinian population and between Palestinians and native East Bank Jordanians, rather than helping to assuage these tensions.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is perceived as the chief instigator. His public embrace of an Israeli embassy security guard, who shot and killed two Jordanians in a rent-related tussle in Amman in 2017, is still mentioned repeatedly as an example of a populist provocation.
Not surprisingly, Jordan’s nightmare scenario is the specter of Israeli West Bank annexation. Jordanians fear such a move would lead to a mass migration of Palestinians – whether forced or unforced by Israel. Netanyahu’s recent statements of intent to annex the Jordan Valley as a first step toward full annexation are viewed in the Hashemite Kingdom as an existential threat.
That is both because of their possible future impact on the demography of Jordan – which is already accommodating more than a million Syrian refugees and tens of thousands of refugees from Iraq – and because of their devastating impact on Jordanian Palestinians, who view annexation as a death blow to their aspirations for a national homeland.
"We too have public opinion, just like they do," Safadi said. He urged Israeli leaders to "think long term, about future generations, not to think from one round of elections to another." The question is whether anyone in power in Israel is listening.
Ori Nir, a former Washington correspondent and Palestinian affairs correspondent for Haaretz, is the communications director for Americans for Peace Now, the sister-organization of Israel’s Peace Now movement. Twitter: @OriNir_APN
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