Jordan, Israel doing business as usual
Amman - Jordan and Israel are on schedule with plans to transform a joint industrial zone in the kingdom into a regional logistics hub that uses Israel’s Mediterranean port of Haifa for all trade activity.
Publicly, the plan is hushed and some government officials deny it to defuse negative public reaction over doing business with Israel. However, it is too significant for Jordan and could prove to be lucrative in the long run.
The idea is to turn the Jordan Gateway Industrial Park and Private Free Zone (JGIP), which operates as a free-trade zone since its founding in 2002, into a regional logistics hub in two years by linking it with Israel via a bridge across the countries’ common border.
The plan provides an alternative and a much safer, viable and organised, route for Jordanian exports to Europe through Haifa, as passages via Syria and Iraq remain sealed due to war and militant violence.
In November 8th, Israel offered a tender to build a bridge to connect both sides of the planned industrial park spanning the Jordanian-Israeli border. However, two days later, Montaser Oqlah, chairman of the Jordan Investment Commission, publicly denied there was such a project. “We have no plans for such a park and we did not discuss the idea with the Israelis,” Oqlah said in a statement.
On the other hand, the Jordan-based JGIP General Manager Qasem al-Tbaishi confirmed the plan in an exclusive interview with The Arab Weekly.
The plan to expand business with Israel has drawn condemnation from opponents of peace with Israel. Munaf Mujalli, head of a national committee that opposes normal ties with Israel, said the government’s plan was a “crime that the government must be held accountable for”.
Mujalli, head of the Jordanian Higher Committee to Protect the Homeland and Resist Normalisation , said the “Zionists have been planning and pushing for this industrial zone to happen since the late 1990s”, adding, ” They want their products to be sold in Jordan and the rest of the region.”
The government’s repeated denials are designed to soothe possible public anger over doing business with Israel. The objection is usually the most severe among Jordan’s Palestinian community, especially as Israel is widely blamed for a high death toll in the latest Palestinian violence in the West Bank, which started over a Muslim shrine in Jerusalem in October.
Roughly half of Jordan’s 8 million population is of Palestinian families, including refugees and their descendants who fled or were forced out of their homes by Israel in the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. With blood ties to the West Bank and also Gaza, many of Jordan’s Palestinians flatly reject any dealings with Israel. Reports that Israel is grabbing more West Bank land, or shooting Palestinians, makes it harder for the state to publicly announce deals with its neighbour with which it signed a peace treaty in 1994.
However, the project is too valuable to put it on hold. Jordan’s trade, including exports of fruits and vegetables, incurred tens of millions of dollars of losses because it used alternative — more expensive — routes to Syria and Iraq. Jordan has also lost significant markets for its products in both countries and through them to Lebanon and Turkey.
Economist Hosam Ayesh said Jordan’s economic ties with Israel were very special.
“The relationship is so strategic that it surpasses the political tensions and differences,” Ayesh said. He said despite tensions, Jordan had “never proposed cutting economic ties with Israel”.
Two-way trade with Israel reached $365 million in 2013 and a nearly similar level in 2014, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. There were no figures available for 2015.
Tbaishi said he “received necessary approvals from the Jordanian government to complete the project”.
“At present, we have ten companies at the park and the number of companies will skyrocket when the bridge is complete in less than two years,” Tbaishi said.
Established in 2002 in Jordan as a peace dividend for both countries, the jointly managed JGIP aims to become a regional cargo trade hub and reposition the Haifa port as a trans-shipment and logistics alternative to the closed land routes through Syria, to and from Europe.
A 67-km railway connecting Haifa and the Israel-Jordan border for a new container terminal is under construction, according to JGIP officials.
JGIP is 90km north of Amman but lies 8km south of a passenger bridge, called Sheikh Hussein, linking Jordan with Israel.
The project on the Israeli side would mainly be offices, warehouses and export and trade-related facilities, while in Jordan, a full-fledged industrial complex will remain in place, according to JGIP officials.