Washington’s policies straining Israel, Jordan ties

Jordan depends on a close relationship with Israel to keep its economy afloat, especially in technology and tourism.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Jordanian visitors walk next to a poster depicting Jordanian King Abdullah II during their visit to Baqoura area on the Jordanian side of the border with Israel, November 13. 	(Reuters)
A troubled relationship in a volatile region. Jordanian visitors walk next to a poster depicting Jordanian King Abdullah II during their visit to Baqoura area on the Jordanian side of the border with Israel, November 13. (Reuter

WASHINGTON - With its starkly pro-Israel stances, the Trump administration may be complicating the strained relationship between Israel and Jordan, analysts said.

In an unconfirmed release of the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, Jordan would lose custodianship over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The report claims Saudi Arabia would be appointed custodian and Israel would have overall sovereignty of the site.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, said the Trump administration may be endangering the status of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty.

“The Trump administration has tilted dramatically towards Israel on all the issues that concern Jordanians about the future of the Palestinian issue, especially the status of Jerusalem,” said Riedel in a Brookings report. The Jordanian government likely senses the close relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump as well as US policies that favour Israel put its concerns on the back burner, he said.

Further straining the relationship was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announcing that the United States would no longer consider the West Bank settlements a violation of international law, which further distanced Jordan from both Israel and the United States. The announcement further dims chances of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Jordan, host to a large Palestinian population, wanted an agreement that guarantees right of return to Israel to Palestinians living in Jordan border. “The establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital is a top Jordanian interest and anything that opposes it will have to be confronted,” said Mohammad al-Momani, a former minister of state affairs and communications for Jordan, following Pompeo’s announcement.

To make matters worse for Jordan, Netanyahu is pushing for the annexation of the Jordan Valley. He claimed he had a conversation with Trump regarding annexation.

“We talked about Iran but we also talked at length about historic opportunities that stand before us in the coming months. Among them are [establishing] the Jordan Valley as the recognised eastern border of the state of Israel, as well as a defence treaty with the United States. Things we could only dream of but now we have the opportunity to realise them,” said Netanyahu on December 2. The Trump administration had not spoken out in support of the annexation until then.

US experts also expressed concern about the implications of annexing the Jordan Valley, land thought to be guaranteed to the Palestinians should a deal with Israel be reached. Annexation would increase tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

“It is difficult to predict the precise reaction of Jordan’s Palestinian population to Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank but it would not be in Israel’s favour,” wrote Albert Wolf, dean of the College of International Studies at the American University of Kurdistan, in Foreign Policy.

Wolf asserted that annexation could lead to mass protests that could threaten the stability of the Jordanian monarchy or cause another influx of Palestinian refugees into Jordan.

Such a destabilisation may render Jordan vulnerable to Islamic extremist groups, considering the country’s proximity to Syria and Iraq, Wolf said.

He argued that the situation “could in turn provide a window of opportunity for groups such as the Islamic State, as well as Palestinian nationalist groups such as Hamas, to establish a greater foothold and take aim at Israel. This would likely invite a response from groups such as Iran and Hezbollah to intervene in the area, extending and building upon their foothold in Syria and exacerbating the security dilemma throughout the region.”

The Jordanian economy has been struggling under the burden of hosting 6 million Palestinian refugees since 1968 and 1.4 million Syrian refugees in recent years as well as those from Iraq.

Jordan depends on a close relationship with Israel to keep its economy afloat, especially in technology and tourism. A $10 billion natural gas deal was signed in 2016 in which Israel agreed to supply Amman with gas for 15 years. Construction on the project was expected to be completed in January 2020. Jordan has a similar agreement for $15 billion with the Egyptian government.

The natural gas deal with Israel revealed simmering discontent among the Jordanians with their government’s relationship with Israel. Palestinian and Jordanian legislators and political activists have called for the agreement to be cancelled. Protests occurred in Jordan after the deal was signed and were expected to escalate when Israeli gas starts being pumped into Jordan.

Tensions have also been rising because of two territories — Baqoura and al-Ghamr — returned to Jordanian sovereignty in November. Jordan declined Israeli requests to renew the land leases on the territories, which were part of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace deal.

“It’s important not to exaggerate the significance of Jordan’s decision but its symbolic value reveals a lot about the gradual erosion of trust and optimism in the bilateral relationship,” Ellen Laipson, a US Middle East expert and former president at the Stimson Centre, wrote in Asia Times.

Despite strains on their relationship, Jordan and Israel have too many interests in common to walk out of that relationship.

On November 28, only days after the deteriorating relations over the land leases, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and a special adviser to Jordanian King Abdullah II, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, met in London. While they discussed several issues, the most important was planning a joint Christian tourism project along the Jordan River.