Analysis

Jordanians Get Back Land Leased by Israel, but See Little Reason to Cheer

The public pressure in Jordan regarding its relationship with Israel is not divorced from the kingdom's severe economic crisis

Jordan's King Abdullah and Crown Prince Hussein in the border area between Israel and Jordan, November 11, 2019.
Jordanian Royal Palace/ REUTERS

One restaurant in Amman served free meals on the day Jordan got back the territories that had been leased to Israel 25 years ago. Other than that, there were no joyful parades in Jordan, no fireworks displays or even any festive declarations.

“These were our lands that Israel leased from Jordan and returned to us as per the agreement,” a Jordanian journalist who works for the Ad-Dustour newspaper told Haaretz. “There’s no place for celebrations or victory calls. This wasn’t occupied territory that we liberated.”

By January it was clear to Jordan’s King Abdullah, as it was to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that extending the lease agreement wouldn’t go over easily, if at all. That month there were turbulent demonstrations in Jordan in which the protesters demanded that a new income tax law be cancelled, and at the same time, they called to end the lease agreement. During the ensuing 10 months, Israel tried to come up with different options that would leave the land in its possession, but the public pressure and Jordanian anger at Israel over its policies on Jerusalem prevailed.

After a government shake-up in May, members of the Jordanian parliament began to press on the future of the leased lands. Prime Minister Omar Razzaz evaded a clear answer, saying, “When the time comes we will tell Parliament what we’ve decided; in any case our decision will be based on the kingdom’s national interests.”

Washington was also recruited to pressure the king to extend the agreement, but this was the same Washington that had ignored the king when it drew up the “deal of the century,” and further incensed Abdullah by backing Saudi Arabia when the latter pressed to give it control over the holy places in Jerusalem. When U.S. President Donald Trump’s adviser, Jared Kushner, presented Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with the idea of forming a confederation with Jordan without asking Jordan, the tension reached a peak, as expressed by the blunt remarks of the Jordanian government spokesman, Jumana Gunaimat, who said, “The proposal is not worthy of discussion.”

King Abdullah of Jordan standing to attention with army troops under a Jordanian national flag during a ceremony at the Jordan Valley site of Naharayim on November 11, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Jordan’s constant anxiety about being turned into an “alternate state” for the Palestinians was reinforced when Trump convened the Bahrain Conference, from which Jordan got the impression that it would be expected to bear the burden of absorbing millions of Palestinian refugees in its territory. To this one must add Israel’s indifference to the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal plan that’s so important to Jordan, the halting of American aid to UNRWA, and finally the prolonged detention of Jordanian civilians, who were only just recently released.

Jordan has no way to exert pressure; what was left was the lease agreement that had fallen hostage to Israeli and American policies. So when Parliament and the Jordanian public started asking why Jordan was allowing farmers from the Zionist entity to use Jordanian land without compensation, the king really had no choice but to calm the critics by announcing the end of the agreement and the return of the lands to the kingdom.

The public pressure in Jordan regarding the relationship between the kingdom and Israel is not divorced from the severe economic crisis there which is cracking, if not shattering, the public loyalty and confidence Abdullah has enjoyed during his 20 years on the throne. In recent months the streets of Amman, Irbid, Karak, Zarqa and other cities have seen stormy demonstrations by young people demanding jobs, many of which have been lost to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees that have found asylum in Jordan.

But the protest and criticism has not been limited to the streets. In the spring the king replaced seven ministers in Razzaz’s government and dismissed intelligence chief Adnan al-Jundi on grounds that he was maintaining ties with parliament members and other senior Jordanian officials “with the goal of undermining state security.” It isn’t clear if there was actually a plot to stage a coup or that this was made up to demonstrate control and to neutralize potential rivals, but it is clear that street protests over the economic situation are fertile ground for anyone choosing to exploit them for political or diplomatic purposes.

Last month, when there were violent demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq, there were concerns in the king’s court that the protests would spill over into Jordan and that there would be a reawakening of the Arab Spring. To try to counter this possibility, Razzaz ordered a series of economic steps aimed at calming the street. These included raising the salaries of government workers, passing a law to encourage investment, improving public services and administrative reform.

Public schools' teachers take part in a protest as part of their strike in Amman, Jordan October 3, 2019.
MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

“The time has come to make decisions and take clear steps that will promote the national economy, fulfill citizens’ needs and reduce unemployment,” the king said at a cabinet meeting last month. But there was nothing new in these declarations, which Jordanians have heard endless times before. Unemployment, meanwhile, has risen to 20 percent, growth is at around 2 percent, and government debt is over $42 billion. The outlines of the reform are correct, but its results will only be seen in the medium to long term and the public has no patience to wait.

To give the public something concrete, the king decided to reexamine the law that allows the imprisonment of debtors who cannot pay their debts. There are nearly 300,000 lawsuits waiting in the Jordanian courts against private debtors, some of them against the poorest members of society, who make up 15 percent of the population. Other steps that have yet to be implemented include reducing the fees for land registration and increasing the size of apartments that will be exempt from purchase tax or real estate taxes. These are minor moves that cannot extract the kingdom from its economic crisis but they could create a calmer atmosphere.

The king accompanied these moves with another shake-up of Razzaz’s government, the fourth since the prime minister took office in June of last year, with the appointment of technocrats as ministers to strengthen the government’s economic prowess. At the same time he ended a month-long teachers’ strike, the longest in the country’s history, by increasing teachers’ salaries by 35 percent. Now the government fears a breach of wage agreements in other sectors, a development that would deepen the budget deficit and force another cut in public services.

The kingdom’s financial fragility and the public criticism of the royal house aren’t yet threatening Abdullah’s control, but they are forcing him to tread very carefully so that the crisis doesn’t become a tool for those who oppose the peace treaty with Israel or Jordan’s relations with the United States. At a time when Trump is disparaging the kingdom and can’t seem to understand the connection between the Jordanian economy and its politics, it’s Israel’s mission to at least refrain from undermining Jordan’s diplomatic interests.