Jordan’s King Abdullah knew 10 months ago that he would have to make a tough decision that was likely to get him into trouble with Israel, the U.S. administration or the Jordanian public.
The question of whether to let the lease agreement for Naharayim in the Jordan Valley and for Zofar in the Arava renew itself automatically, which is one of the options in the peace treaty with Israel, was first debated with his senior advisers back in January. This came amid the large demonstrations in Jordan against the country’s new tax law, when there were also calls to cancel the peace agreement with Israel, or at least not to extend the leases.
The king asked then-Prime Minister Hani Mulki to prepare a comprehensive survey on the status of the leased lands, and the conclusion was that Jordan could take the lands back, since it owns them and under the peace agreement either party can cancel the lease agreement after 25 years, with a year’s notice.
This is explicit in the peace treaty and in essence there was no need for any further research; Mulki’s study was aimed at giving the Jordanian government some breathing room to make a diplomatic decision.
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Mulki has a personal connection to these lands, since when his father, Fawzi Mulki, was prime minister during the 1950s, he made a commitment to return the lands at Naharayim to Jordan, except for the 75 dunams on which the Rutenberg power plant had been built with the permission of the British Mandatory rulers.
The younger Mulki was fired in June following more demonstrations in Jordan, as part of efforts by Abdullah to calm the public, and the tax law was frozen. But the new prime minister, Omar Razzaz, has refrained until now from making any public statements on the future of the lease agreement.
“When the time comes we will tell parliament what we’ve decided,” Razzaz told MPs, who were demanding an answer. “Our decision will be based on the kingdom’s national interests.”
Israel was not surprised by the decision, nor should it have been. Not only was it aware of the public and parliamentary pressures being exerted on the king, it was also getting clear messages about the matter and had even been asked what its position would be if the king cancelled the agreement. Diplomatic efforts to dissuade Abdullah, which involved the United States, were unsuccessful.
Jordan, it turned out, had too many complaints about Israeli policy in the territories and in Jerusalem. It was being excluded from issues related to the Temple Mount, despite an explicit commitment under the peace agreement to give it special status in Jerusalem and on the mount. Jordan was also kept out of the diplomatic talks with the Palestinians before they collapsed.
Jordan is also angry at the United States because Jared Kushner made a proposal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about establishing a confederation with Jordan – without having asked Abdullah’s opinion.
“The proposal is not worthy of discussion,” said the Jordanian government spokesman, in the sharpest response ever to an American proposal. Jordan sees this proposal as a threat, whose purpose is to turn the kingdom into an “alternative homeland” for the Palestinians, or as another way to circumvent the two-state solution.
Later, Jordan protested U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to stop aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which could spark dissent among the two million Palestinian refugees living in the kingdom, and impose another economic burden on the coffers of a country also dealing with some 1.5 million refugees from Syria, tens of thousands of refugees from Iraq, and public debt of more than $40 billion.
Jordan is also aware of Israel’s cold shoulder towards the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal project despite the 2015 agreement signed on this undertaking, whose completion could help Jordan overcome chronic water shortages.
Thus, even if the king could have coped with the increasing public criticism against extending the lease agreement, Israel and the United States had not equipped him with sufficient ammunition to make a different decision. The kingdom’s diplomatic and economic circumstances offer it no justification to agree to lease lands it owns for no recompense. Moreover, nationalist and religious groups have been demanding to know why Jordan does not apply its sovereignty over all its territory, instead of allowing the farmers of the Zionist entity to enjoy free land.
The termination of the lease is not a breach of the peace agreement; it is part of the rights granted to Jordan and Israel under the agreement. The two countries have the right to open negotiations now on a new agreement under new conditions that would presumably include substantial payment for use of the land.
The next test for Israeli-Jordanian relations will come when Israel asks to begin such negotiations. It is not clear whether Israel has received any indication of Jordan’s willingness to negotiate, or, if it agrees to talk, whether the conditions Jordan will set won’t be aimed at scuttling the talks in advance.
What is undeniable is the close link between, on the one hand, Israel’s policy in the territories and Washington’s attitude towards Jordan and the Palestinians, and, on the other hand, Jordan’s willingness to go beyond the written language of the agreements with it.
It’s true that Israel and Washington can impose unofficial sanctions on Amman by delaying projects or moderating the assistance it receives from American and international institutions. But it would be a mistake to employ this Pavlovian response against a country whose strategic importance to Israel and its security needs no proof.