By Yehonathan Tommer
Last month’s summit between Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert and King Abdullah was primarily an “introductory meeting” between the two leaders. It produced no surprises, nor any disagreements previously unknown to both sides. The two countries have a long relationship, dating to the 1950s, of close security cooperation and exchanges to ensure that effective measures are enforced along their long land border to foil terrorist infiltration, illicit arms trafficking and drugs smuggling. Since their peace agreement in 1994, joint military and counter-terrorist intelligence gathering have deepened at the highest levels. These have expanded even further since 9/11 in cooperation with America’s global counter-terrorist operations against al-Qaeda networks operating inside Jordan and across the border in Iraq.
At his joint press conference with King Abdullah in Amman on June 8, Prime Minister Olmert stressed their agreement “to remain in close contact in order to promote our mutual interests” and to “coordinate the future steps that will be taken, as we have done in the past.” Transparent relations with Jordan, he said, were “fundamental, essential and of strategic importance.” The Kingdom of Jordan, he added, “plays a crucial role in maintaining the stability and security of our region,” and is “a true partner for bringing peace to the region.”
Olmert reiterated Israel’s commitment to the Road Map, and to achieving a two state solution, and told Abdullah that he intends to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to exhaust every possibility for progress. He added that hopefully, the Palestinians would “fully implement the demands of the Quartet and the international community” to allow negotiations to be held. Political stalemate “is bad for Israel, is bad for the Palestinians and bad for Jordan and the region.” But if the Palestinians do not meet their obligations and no political horizon is apparent, Olmert stressed, Israel will have to “look for other ways to move the situation in the Middle East forward.”
The Israeli-Jordanian partnership reflects shared strategic interests grounded in similar perceptions of Palestinian demography and geography. The two countries agree that a Palestinian state ruled by a radical, nationalist government pursuing overt and covert irredentist goals would undermine the territorial integrity of both countries and fuel regional instability.
Jordan is seen by Israel’s security community as a strategic buffer that contains Palestinian nationalism, so that today no serious and responsible Israeli politician subscribes to the thesis once advocated by some Likud senior ministers that Jordan is Palestine.
Israel would like Jordan (with whom it has a 12 year peace agreement and no territorial dispute over their shared Jordan River Valley border) to actively mediate in its dispute with the Palestinians. Yet this presents Jordan with a dilemma. As an Arab state, 80% of whose citizens are ethnic Palestinians intermarried with West Bankers and Gazans, King Abdullah is reluctant to abandon his father’s (King Hussein) 20-year-old policy of non-involvement with the Palestinians west of the Jordan. This would invite accusations of treachery to the Palestinian cause at home and allegations in the Arab and Islamic world that Amman is weakening Palestinian bargaining power. This dilemma is compounded by home-grown Islamic terrorism and cross border subversion from an unstable Iraq.
Jordan, like Israel’s southern neighbour Egypt, is beset also by widespread anti-Israel sentiments among its educated and in the liberal professions. From time to time, Jordanian doctors, lawyers, journalists and academics are boycotted by their associations for alleged contacts with Israelis. Their unions tend to be controlled by Islamic radicals associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or radical left-wing, nationalist and Palestinian groups opposed to normalisation with Israel. The government generally declines to intervene but in extreme cases issues punitive warnings when a boycott is considered excessive.
With Jordan a target for Islamist terrorist attacks, Israel has periodically issued travel advisories warning its citizens against travel to the country when tangible intelligence has accumulated of planned terrorist attacks against Israeli targets and Jordanian hotels.
To many, an independent West Bank—Gazan Palestinian state sandwiched between Israel and the Jordan River should ideally be part of an eventual confederation linking all three entities to a common future in the historic land of Palestine/Eretz Israel. However, this old-new vision is a very long way from being realised, given today’s realities.
“In principle the Jordanians don’t want a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from settlements in the West Bank that leaves them with a common border with the Palestinians at the Jordan River,” comments Ehud Yaari, veteran Arab Affairs commentator for Israel’s Channel 2 network. “The flow of middle class Palestinian families from the West Bank to Jordan is already sufficient to make Jordanian authorities nervous about their regime’s stability.” They fear a total disintegration of the Palestinian Authority could boost that flow and so are imposing restrictions on the entry of West Bankers to Jordan.
“Both states understand that Palestinian nationalism is potentially dangerous,” says Yaari. “Each wishes from their own perspective to settle the problem in a mutually acceptable way to contain the threat. There is no simple formula but [this understanding] has formed the basis of their partnership for many years. To this have been added common grievances toward Syria and fears of developments in Iraq.”
If Israel withdraws from the West Bank as it did from the Gaza Strip, [the Jordanians] will be in a worse situation, several fold, than the Egyptians,” says Yaari. To this end “they sought and received Israeli assurances that Israeli troops will remain in the West Bank and continue to exercise responsibility for the area’s security.”
Publicly, Jordan has to appear to oppose all unilateral Israeli action to avoid hurting Palestinian bargaining strength, says Dan Schueftan, Deputy Director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University. “In practice, if Israel’s unilateral action prevents the Palestinians from harming Jordan, publicly they will complain, but privately they will be happy.”
Jordan formally renounced all responsibility for West Bank affairs in 1988. Israel would be happy for Jordan to exercise a greater role in the territories. But the Jordanians at this point feel it’s not worth their while as they have no capability to moderate Palestinian radicalism,” says Schueftan.
According to Yaari, the Palestinians are not in a hurry to declare an independent state. On the other hand, it is unlikely that Prime Minister Olmert will find support for a purported plan to jump to Phase II of the Road Map without waiting for the Palestinians to dismantle their terrorist infrastructure as required by Phase I. This would convert the convergence plan into a bilateral move in conjunction with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and an interim step in an attempt to progress toward a final settlement. The Prime Minister’s office is reportedly drafting a plan which would create a Palestinian state with provisional borders in the West Bank and Gazan territories vacated by Israeli settlements. “For that he [Olmert] needs an agreement from the Palestinians and those who can influence them.” And that, says Yaari, “is unlikely to happen.”
By the same token, a regional solution proposed by former National Security Council director General (res.) Giora Eiland in an interview with Haaretz last month, is also a non-starter. Eiland proposed that Egypt should cede land in northern Sinai and attach it to the Gaza Strip and Israel would compensate it with land in the southern Negev. Jordan would cede land on the east bank to a Palestinian entity in exchange for a West Bank role and acceptance of an Israeli presence there – all in the framework of a regional confederation.
“An interesting but not a serious idea.” says Yaari. “Nobody on any account in the Arab world will accept responsibility for the Palestinian issue. As much as Israel wants to throw the Palestinian issue into the Arab court, the Arabs will refuse to catch the ball.”
While leaders on all three sides are moving towards a realisation that the Palestinian issue can effectively be resolved by creating an independent Palestinian state in the context of a confederative union, Yaari says, they are still very far from translating this into operational policies.
Yehonathan Tommer is a veteran journalist based in Jerusalem.