Deconstructing the Jordan option

Buttons with Jordanian King Abdullah’s picture are for sale along with Jordanian, Palestinian and other flags in a shop in Amman, Jordan, July 2007. (Matthew Cassel)

Last month the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the US and Israel were considering a revival of the “Jordan option.” In spite of the fervent denials emanating from Amman, the report caused a rash of speculation and concern among Palestinians. Many fear that if implemented it would mark the end of hopes for an independent Palestinian state. Resurrecting the Jordan option, in which the West Bank and possibly Gaza would be united in a political and economic confederation with Jordan, demonstrates not just the poverty of ideas in Washington and Israel, but their desperation as well. Perhaps the allies believe that by trapping the Palestinians between the “rock” of Israel’s apartheid wall and the “hard place” of Jordan’s vaunted Arab Legion and dreaded Mukhabarat intelligence service, they will extinguish Palestinian nationalism. However, they and whichever Arab leaders agree to such a policy are sadly mistaken. If history is any guide, the Hashemite regime has more to fear from such a confederation than the Palestinians.

Initially proposed as a response to the outbreak of the “Great Arab Revolt” against the British Mandate in 1936, a confederation with Jordan has consistently been used by the global and regional powers as a mechanism to punish Palestinian political activity and reward loyal clients. The Peel Partition Plan called for the creation of a small Jewish state in northern Palestine and for an Arab state united with Transjordan under the rule of the first King Abdullah, who until his death remained a willing British tool. This plan was soundly rejected by the Palestinian Arab leadership, who objected to the partition of Palestine, the leadership of Abdullah, and the proposed population transfer of roughly 225,000 Palestinians from the territory allotted for the Jewish state.

A decade later the United Nations’ Partition Plan for Palestine appeared to abandon some of the earlier provisions. However, Britain secretly coordinated with Transjordan to seize the areas designated by the UN for an Arab state. This arrangement was ensured in a tacit agreement between King Abdullah and the Zionist leadership in Palestine as detailed in Avi Shlaim’s Collusion Across the Jordan. Known as the “Greater Transjordan Plan,” this policy advocated the annexation of central Palestine (now known as the West Bank) by Transjordan. Fearing that a Palestinian state would be led by Hajj Amin Husseini and become a source of radical nationalism and irredentism leading to continual conflict in the region, the Anglo-American allies believed the Greater Transjordan Plan offered the best chance of achieving peace and stability.

In the aftermath of the Nakba, with Palestinian society shattered and more than half of its indigenous population refugees, including over 300,000 in the West Bank and Jordan alone, Abdullah gained acceptance for his rule in a sham conference led by the representatives of his allies in the Palestinian National Defense Party. The combined territories were officially renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1950, and received de jure recognition by London and private approval from Washington. A year later Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque in front of his grandson, and later king, Hussein.

Within a decade the Palestinian national movement reemerged, inspired by the Algerian revolution and the broader trend of Arab nationalism as espoused by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. After the June 1967 War, as Arab regimes across the political spectrum were discredited with their publics and the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights were occupied by Israel, it was the Palestinian resistance which stood as the symbol of Arab hopes and aspirations across the region. Although the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was recognized by the Arab League and the UN as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” by 1974, a possible confederation with Jordan was kept alive by American, Israeli, and Jordanian leaders, in order to quell Palestinian demands for self-determination. The outbreak of the first intifada and King Hussein’s subsequent declaration renouncing his claim to the West Bank appeared to finally end the possibility of the Jordan option. Or so it seemed.

As if any further evidence was required, reviving the notion of a confederation with Jordan reveals how shallow and hollow the Bush doctrine’s call for “democratizing the Middle East” truly is. Its vision of a “new Middle East” a shambles, Washington has once again embraced “stability” over representative government by bolstering the conservative Arab regimes with increased military and financial aid. While King Abdullah II and others may believe that by tightening Jordan’s relationship with, and dependency upon, Washington it will ensure the security of the regime, they conveniently forget that American support is no guarantee of success. One need look no further than Ahmed Chalabi’s aborted bid to become President of a “free Iraq” with Washington’s assistance, or for that matter how the appointed and elected Iraqi governments have fared since the American occupation began. Nor has history been kind to families that have opted for corruption, opulence, and subservience over the needs of their populations: the Diems, Pahlavis, and Somozas.

Indeed, this fate should already be familiar to the Hashemites, who should remember how their cousins’ British-imposed monarchy in Iraq ended in 1958. However, the Hashemites are not just an elite clique, they are a minority regime that is increasingly distant from the population within its boundaries. Over 50 percent of Jordan’s 6 million people are Palestinians, most of whom are refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars. Jordan has also been forced to contend with a recent refugee influx of roughly 750,000 Iraqis. Moreover, the regime is dependent upon US foreign aid and subsidies from the Arab oil states to remain solvent. Incorporating Palestine into such a scenario, with the embers of the second intifada still smoldering, an emboldened Hamas, and a disintegrating Iraq, will result not in smothering Palestinian national aspirations, but in encouraging them.

America’s increasing reliance on conservative Arab regimes is exemplified by its relationship with the Jordanian military and intelligence apparatus. As Joseph Massad illustrates in Colonial Effects, the Arab Legion has served as the backbone of Jordanian national identity. It has also been the blunt instrument through which Britain and the US have suppressed movements they deemed “radical” in the Middle East, including the Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939) and the PLO (September 1970). More recently, the Arab Legion and Mukhabarat have also proven to be a reliable, if not necessarily adept, outsourcing service for Washington. In the US’ “War on Terror,” Jordan has become one of several sites where terror suspects and “high value detainees” are subject to “extraordinary rendition,” a bland euphemism for interrogation and torture by the Mukhabarat so Americans don’t sully their hands. While in Iraq, The New Yorker magazine recently reported that Iraqi workers and translators in the “Green Zone” are now considered a potential security threat and have been replaced with Jordanians. Moreover, in the past few years, Jordan has helped to train Mohammad Dahlan’s militia in Gaza and elements of the Lebanese army. Considering how poorly both have fared recently, this is hardly evidence of Jordan’s training prowess. Although the Lebanese army, like the Arab Legion, has displayed a particular aptitude in the indiscriminate shelling of a densely populated civilian area, demonstrating yet again that the armies of the Arab states are intended primarily for internal population suppression and military parades.

The first King Abdullah was contemptuously known as “Bevin’s Little King” due to his diminutive stature and obsequiousness to British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. Unlike his great-grandfather, Abdullah II is not content tying his fortunes to a single individual or administration. Rather, like his father, he is determined to be America’s Little King, and in the process make Jordan and himself indispensable to Washington’s plans for the Middle East. Perhaps like his predecessors, King Abdullah II believes that absorbing Palestine will not only make Jordan more viable economically, but will further ingratiate him to American and Israeli policy makers. Yet, in an increasingly unstable region, it is questionable how long Amman will be able to support the US’ disastrous policies and maintain control over its own population. What is apparent, however, is that should the Hashemite regime attempt to swallow Palestine again, they do so at their own peril.

Osamah Khalil is a Palestinian-American doctoral candidate in US and Middle East History at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on US foreign policy in the Middle East. He can be reached at