Trump's Revived Jordan-Palestinian Confederation Plan May Be Dead on Arrival

The Palestinians refuse to give up their aspirations for independence, Israel is waging a war on the idea of an independent Palestinian state, and Jordan fears losing its national identity

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File photo: U.S. President Donald Trump and behind him Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the two arrive in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
File photo: U.S. President Donald Trump and behind him Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the two arrive in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

In the early ‘80s, King Hussein and Yasser Arafat had a plan to create a confederation between Jordan and the West Bank, after Israel would withdraw to the 1967 border and without either member of the confederation recognizing Israel. Most of the plan was accepted but later abandoned, largely due to a disagreement over the division of responsibilities and the status of each component.

In 1988, the plan was permanently shelved, when Hussein severed Jordan’s legal and administrative links with the West Bank. Since then, the idea has surfaced occasionally, usually brought up by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but King Abdullah has rejected it repeatedly.

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The confederation idea has presumably been revived, this time by the United States, which according to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently offered him a plan similar to the ‘80s version. Abbas is well-versed in the historical plan and the circumstances of its creation. In the ‘80s, Arafat sought a political buttress after the PLO leadership and militants were expelled from Lebanon, while Jordan sought to tighten its grip on the West Bank.

The circumstances today are different. The Fatah leadership, distanced from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, still needs strong political support to advance the Palestinians’ national interests, but Jordan is in no hurry to return to a swamp that could pull it in. On Sunday, Jordan’s minister of state for media affairs, Jumana Ghunaimat, who also serves as a government spokeswoman, said that the idea of a confederation with Jordan wasn’t up for discussion and that the Palestinians had the right to establish their state on their land. Short and sweet.

Jordan's King Abdullah II (R) meets with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan August 8, 2018.Credit: \ POOL/ REUTERS

The Israeli plan that was discussed with envoys of U.S. President Donald Trump and presented to Abdullah calls for Jordanian security forces to be in charge of protecting the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem) and the border between Israel and the confederation. The confederation agreement, which would be signed by the West Bank and Jordan, would not specify whether a joint parliament and constitution would be established or whether the Palestinian component would have the status of a state.

Gaza and the Jordan Valley

It’s possible that Israel would be willing to recognize a Palestinian state, but only as part of the confederation and without the Gaza Strip, whose security would be assumed by Egypt. The settlements would remain in place, under the direct civil and security control of Israel.

Such a plan is incapable of reassuring Jordan’s leaders, who fear that a confederation is a cover for establishing an alternative Palestinian homeland on its soil. They believe that the confederation structure could lead to a Palestinian majority (which Jordan already has) between the 1967 lines and the kingdom’s eastern border that could demand national rights in the common territory.

Also left unclear is the future status of the Jordan Valley, which Israel has always insisted must remain under its control. Jordan would become Israel’s border guard and be responsible for preventing terror activity in the West Bank, as the pretext for the conflict — mainly the settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the border — continued to feed the Palestinian resistance.

When Arafat declared, back in the day, that he had plans for a confederation with Jordan “in his pocket,” King Hussein told him “to keep it in his pocket until such time as Palestinians are able to express themselves freely. I hope they will, and then we can look.” It seems that this position still holds, and that Jordan insists that Israel must first recognize a Palestinian state before Amman will agree to discuss a confederation.

The old Israeli vision

Abbas had good reason to rush to say he’s willing to discuss the proposal if Israel is part of the confederation. He’s well aware of Jordan’s position and is familiar with the Israeli plan as well. It’s interesting that it was Abbas, not Abdullah or Netanyahu, who “revealed” the American idea; it’s the Palestinian leader’s chance to put forward his own proposal, saving himself from his “intransigent” label while knowing that his proposal has as much chance of succeeding as Trump’s “deal of the century” does.

In a poll in the West Bank around two years ago, 42 percent of the respondents supported a confederation with Jordan (38 percent were opposed), but then, as now, the implications of the concept weren’t presented. Abbas views a confederation as a path to recognition of a Palestinian state, since he believes that a confederation between nonstate entities is an impossibility.

That’s why he insists on Israel being a partner, in order to guarantee not only recognition of a Palestinian state as an idea, but also its borders and standing. A confederation of this kind would require Israel to reach new economic agreements, coordinate foreign policy with both Jordan and the Palestinian state, and see them as equal partners.

One can imagine the Israeli government giving the Palestinians the finger over such a formula. Israel views the proposed confederation as an agreement between the West Bank, as an autonomous canton whose principal ties with Jordan would be economic, and Jordan, which would determine foreign and defense policy.

It’s the old Israeli vision of a Palestinian “independent government” that would manage the daily life of its citizens on the municipal level without independent representation in the international community. This government would be economically dependent on Jordanian policy and under Israeli restrictions, disconnected from Gaza despite that territory’s definition in all the agreements as an inseparable part of Palestine.

A detachment from Gaza is not an inconsequential matter. No Palestinian leadership can ignore the existence of 2 million Palestinians and cede their state’s southern territory. The confederation solution must include Gaza, especially at a time when the rift between the two parts of Palestine is only growing and Egyptian efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah continue to slip away.

The vision of a confederation, whether with three partners or two, is not unacceptable per se. It could prove advantageous to all sides, as long as each can benefit from the mutual guarantees of national independence and sovereignty.

But with the Palestinians still refusing to give up their aspirations of national independence, Israel waging an all-out war on the idea of an independent Palestinian state, and Jordan fearful of losing its national identity within the salad of a confederation, this vision seems more like a cluster of colorful soap bubbles.

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