Eighteen Years and Getting Colder

Failing to dissuade the designated ambassador to Israel, Walid Obeidat, from accepting the position, dignitaries from the tribe issued a harsh 'statement of repudiation.'

Last week marked the 18th anniversary of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. Israelis remember that day as a happy moment, as proof that the Jewish state indeed had a real friend in the Arab world. For many Jordanians, however, it was a difficult and even painful event, encapsulating Jordan's dependence on the West. Even their hope for economic prosperity as a result of the peace, a hope that was imprudently cultivated by the regime as a means to mitigate domestic criticism, was soon to be lost. Mixed feelings of guilt, fear and resentment between Transjordanians ("Bedouin" ), the traditional bedrock of the regime, and Palestinian-Jordanians, and the complicated relationship between the East Bank and the West Bank, cast their enormous shadow on the implementation of the treaty, thwarting its transformation from peace between governments to peace between peoples.

While Israel has taken Jordan for granted ever since, the Jordanian elite and public opinion have grown increasingly frustrated and resentful toward Israel. The reasons have been political - the closing window on the "two-state solution"; bilateral - the disillusionment at the lack of "fruits of peace"; and domestic - the erosion of the historic social contract between the regime and the Transjordanian population as a result of King Abdullah II's neoliberal socioeconomic policies.

Politically, the dwindling chances for establishment of a viable Palestinian state undermine the foundations of the Israeli-Jordanian peace, as it is clear that Israel will not even contemplate the possibility of a single democratic state, where each citizen has the vote, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Therefore, any alternative solutions it might be able to discuss will eventually jeopardize Jordan. Jordanians fully understand this reality, and while their own alternative solutions reflect some unionist ideas (see Prince Hassan's remarks last month to the effect that both the East Bank and the West Bank are essential parts of the kingdom), the majority simply grows more dismayed and hateful of Israel. The governments of both Israel and Jordan may admire the tight security-military cooperation between the two states, but the diplomatic and political sinkholes on both sides of the Jordan River are in fact widening.

The effect of the Jordanian domestic scene on the peace with Israel seems marginal at first glance, but a closer look will also reveal a strategic impact. The growing tension and mutual distrust between the regime and the Transjordanian population compromise the Israeli-Jordanian relations in two aspects. First, they widen the gap between the Hashemite agenda and the Transjordanian agenda, one of whose thorniest characteristics is the issue of the relations with Israel. Second, they turn Israel into a punching bag in the game between the regime and the Transjordanians. The king himself, for example, recently accused the opponents of the Jordanian nuclear program of "collaboration" with Israel.

The resounding open resistance of the Obeidat tribe to the appointment of one of their own to the post of Jordan's ambassador to Israel is a telling case in point. The Obeidat, one of the largest and strongest tribes in the north of the kingdom, have never been ardent supporters of the peace treaty, and Ahmad Obeidat, a former prime minister and head of the Mukhabarat intelligence services, has been a key figure of the Transjordanian opposition to peace with Israel. The objection of Transjordanian tribes and clans to the appointment of their own tribesmen as ambassadors in Israel is hardly new, either. However, this time the nature and the scope of the tribal response amounted to a direct challenge to the king.

Failing to dissuade the designated ambassador, Walid Obeidat, from accepting the position, dignitaries from the tribe issued a harsh "statement of repudiation." Declaring their commitment to the "liberation of Palestine from the sea to the river," they stressed that "he who accepts this job puts his hand in the hand of the usurpers of the land, who killed the Palestinians, expelled them and desecrated the holy Islam." He is a disgrace to his tribe and is therefore repudiated by it. Initially, the regime stood alone against this tribal uprising, as even the government media refused to take a stand on this issue. Nonetheless, Walid Obeidat went forward and submitted his credentials to President Shimon Peres some three weeks later. Black flags flapped over the Obeidat villages, and October 17 was declared a day of mourning for the powerful tribe.

Allegedly, there were many winners in this drama: The king's status was reinforced as the state trumped the tribe; the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the scandal and made heroes out of the Obeidat tribe; and the latter both stressed their principal objection to peace while avoiding a costly clash with the regime. Yet the main loser was the peace treaty itself, to which has just been added a higher bar. In the future, tribes might follow the Obeidats' suit, especially if they do not want to be considered "traitors." The Hashemite regime will pay the price too, in the long run, because the deepening rivalries and divisions within the tribes will render them more defiant and unruly.

Eighteen years after the conclusion of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, it no longer depends mainly on statesmanship or the establishment of a Palestinian state. It is now also hostage to the outcomes of the disintegration of the historic social contract between the Hashemite regime and the Transjordanian population.

Dr. Assaf David is a research fellow at the Truman Institute for Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and an adjunct lecturer there, as well as at Ben-Gurion University. He is also a coeditor of canthink.co.il, where this piece was originally published, in Hebrew.