Jordan, Israel doing business as usual

Friday 08/01/2016
The exterior of JGIP in the northern Jordan Valley.

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.