Jordan-Israel normalization scheme backfires badly

A video showing Israeli and Jordanian women embracing and meeting caused an uproar among Jordanians late last month.

It was posted on Israel’s official Arabic-language Facebook page, highlighting an Israeli government-backed initiative called Bless Your Hands.

The initiative purports to “support the socioeconomic and environmental well-being of the communities of Israeli and Jordanian women” in Wadi Araba, an area south of the Dead Sea along the border between Israel and Jordan.

Under the banner of promoting textile handicrafts and business development, the project brings together Israeli and Jordanian women for “meetings and seminars in both Israel and Jordan.”

It involves the Jordanian women collecting and processing wool from local sheep and exporting it to the Israeli women, who then make it into decorative textiles that are priced as high as $1,100 apiece.

One wall-hanging currently retailing for a discounted price of $420 is marketed under the disturbingly colonial-sounding name “Afrika,” and is described as having been made “with love, hope and inspiration” through a “Jordanian-Israeli sisterhood.”

The initiative claims it aims “to provide an economic alternative for income for the Israeli and Jordanian artists,” but its website does not explain how the Israel-based organization distributes the revenue it reaps.

Bless Your Hands also claims it wants to promote “sustainable community economy.”

But this smacks of blatant hypocrisy, given how the Israeli government, which backs the project, is systematically impeding and destroying the livelihoods of entire Palestinian communities, especially herders, in the occupied West Bank’s Jordan Valley – which also borders Jordan.

In this context, Jordanian critics say it amounts to exploitation of impoverished Jordanian women by white Israeli colonialists to burnish Israel’s image, create a false picture of reciprocity and promote normalization with Jordan – a country where the vast majority of people view Israel as an enemy because of its ongoing occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

According to the initiative’s website, it was founded at the instigation of Israel’s ministry of regional cooperation and is sponsored by several Israeli organizations, including the Central Arava Regional Council, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Israeli website developer Wix.

No Jordanian organizations are listed as partners.

Political motivations

Hagar Baram, the Israeli head of Bless Your Hands, does not hide the project’s political motivations.

“With everything you have recently heard about Israeli-Jordan relations, we wanted to tell you that there is hope,” she stated in celebration of the website’s launch.

Jordanian campaign groups BDS Jordan, which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and Etharrak, which opposes normalization with Israel, decried the initiative.

“Zionist assaults continue to infiltrate Jordanian society, which has remained resistant to normalization efforts since the signing of the agreement of shame in 1994,” BDS Jordan stated, referring to the Jordan-Israel peace treaty.

BDS Jordan raised the question of which Jordanian entities facilitated and coordinated the initiative, including the Israeli visits. It noted that the work of international “development” organizations is typically highly regulated by the government – so this initiative could scarcely have escaped official attention.

It also asked why these women and their communities have been allowed to remain so economically vulnerable for so long, leaving them to face a choice between “hunger or development options tainted with normalization.”

BDS Jordan pondered whether the Jordanian women understood that their participation would be a form of normalization and “that they would establish relationships with the killers of our parents, grandparents and women on Palestinian soil.”

While the political objectives of the project may have been obscured, at least some of the Jordanian women were clearly aware that they were working with Israelis, as several explicitly acknowledged in the video.

The video also shows Israeli women crossing into Jordan and participating in workshops with Jordanian women in Ghor al-Safi, an area south of the Dead Sea. An Israeli woman says a Jordanian group of women also visited Israel.

In the video, one Jordanian woman identified as Suhad says she hopes Jordanians and Israelis continue to work “hand in hand.”

Another, identified as Umm Ahmad al-Saudi, says she trained both Jordanian and Israeli women and they worked together producing pieces.

Backlash

Activists and social media users accused Israel of exploiting how Ghor al-Safi residents live in poverty by providing income with the real purpose of normalizing relations between Israelis and Jordanians.

The video was removed from Israel’s official Arabic-language Facebook page following outrage among Jordanians on social media.

Israel’s Arabic-language social media propaganda pages are run by its foreign ministry.

The Bless Your Hands Facebook page has also been removed, while its Instagram page is set to private.

That the Israelis – and as yet unidentified Jordanian entities – behind this initiative apparently did not anticipate the massive outrage indicates a severe lack of understanding of how deep opposition to Israel’s colonialism runs among Jordanians.

Cold peace

Israel and Jordan formally normalized relations through the Wadi Araba agreement in 1994, despite there being no restoration of Palestinian rights or an end to Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

But while formal diplomatic relations exist between the two countries, this has never translated into a so-called warm peace among people. Jordanians are generally reluctant to cooperate openly with Israelis.

The Wadi Araba agreement is strongly opposed by the Jordanian public and members of parliament.

Jordan began importing gas from Israel last year as part of the US-backed Israel-Jordan gas deal, which will see Jordan pay at least $10 billion over 15 years – money that will undoubtedly contribute to Israel’s ongoing oppression of Palestinians.

The Jordanian public and parliament have staunchly opposed the deal since it was signed in 2016 and repeatedly called for its cancellation through campaigns and protests.

The deal’s contents, which were classified by the Jordanian government but revealed in 2019, confirm suspicions that the Jordanian government misled the public about its involvement in the deal, as well as the conditions for its cancellation and its implications for the Jordanian economy.

Lockdown rally

Meanwhile, from 18-20 March Israelis participated in the 2021 Jordan Baja – an annual motor race in Jordan’s famous Wadi Rum and the Red Sea port of Aqaba.

Two Israeli drivers – Rotem Costa and Amit Sadot – took part in the rally.

There was widespread consternation that the event was allowed to take place at all in the middle of a curfew and national lockdown due to a COVID-19 surge that has made Jordan one of the world’s hardest hit hotspots.

“While the government keeps us under lockdown, it allows Zionists to move freely on our land under the banner of sports,” BDS Jordan stated.

Tensions

These recent examples of normalization contrast with apparently strained relations between Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Tensions appeared to rise when a 10 March visit by Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah to Jerusalem was canceled after Jordan and Israel disagreed on the prince’s security detail.

Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi said Israel’s change to the crown prince’s security program would have infringed on Palestinians’ access to the al-Aqsa mosque.

Following the incident, what would have been Netanyahu’s first trip to the United Arab Emirates on 11 March was canceled after Jordan delayed his flight clearance.

Netanyahu retaliated by trying to block Israeli-controlled airspace to Jordanian flights the following week, but the order was opposed by Israel’s transportation ministry before it affected scheduled flights, according to Tel Aviv daily Haaretz.

Netanyahu has also not responded to Jordan’s request to supply it with water late last month, deepening the rift.

Amman’s request was reportedly submitted through the joint Israeli-Jordanian water committee, established under the 1994 treaty.

Despite the tit-for-tat diplomatic rifts, Amman cannot take more than cosmetic action against Israel without irking its main patron, the United States.

Nor can Jordan’s actions be sufficient to satisfy public and parliamentary opposition to normalization with Israel – doing so would require substantive measures including cancellation of the gas deal and the treaty.

Jordan remains an integral component of US regional hegemony, especially as Jordan shares Israel’s longest border.

However, Jordan no longer enjoys the distinction of being – along with Egypt – one of only two countries in the region that have diplomatic relations with Israel.

After the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel last year, Jordan’s diplomatic status was diminished.

This is especially true as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain’s brand of normalization has been emphatically warm, encouraging open cultural, investment, educational and scientific ties – something people in Jordan continue to reject a quarter century after its treaty.

Observers at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank affiliated with the powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC, have even argued that the US should “explore ways to guarantee that Jordan benefits directly from the new dynamics and opportunities” afforded by Israel’s recent agreements with Gulf states.

Israel lobbyists hope that shoring up Jordan economically will ensure that it remains firmly within the American-Israeli camp.

Ali Abunimah contributed reporting.

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The whole normalisation project is a sham. There is a very simple way to "normalise" relations: grant equal rights. Normalising relations with Arab dictatorships, some of which have atrocious human rights records, sits ill with Israel's claims to democracy. Of course, Israel cares neither for democracy nor for "normal" relations: it cares to entrench and further its power. Today's allies will be tomorrow's enemies if it's convenient. "Normal" relations ought to rest on the fact of human identity. We are the same in all essentials. The differences are superficial. They attract attention precisely because they are the exception. They are to be celebrated; but they offer no evidence for the superiority of one group over another, no excuse for the authority of anyone over anyone else. As the simple, anarchistic formula puts it: no one is good enough to have power over anyone else. That's the view of people who don't put their faith in the State, unlike the Israelis for whom the power of the State is synonymous with being Jewish.

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