Trapped by treaty, Jordan’s options are limited

One man watches two others shake hands.

Bill Clinton watches King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin sign the Jordan-Israel peace treaty on the White House lawn in 1994.

World History Archive Newscom

Nothing attests to the temperature of Jordan-Israel relations than the celebrations planned for Saturday, which marks the 25th anniversary of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty.

Nothing is planned.

Israel may be pushing to normalize relations with some Arab countries. It may even be making some progress.

But all that will count for nothing if its peace treaty with Jordan comes to naught. This, after all, was the one that should have made way for all the others.

It was the one that saw Israelis dream of a warm peace in the region, rather than the frosty one they had so far with Egypt, a peace that cost one Egyptian president his life.

But the fact that the peace treaty with Jordan – touted as so potentially beneficial to so many – is now seemingly at risk, speaks to the complacency and incompetence of a succession of Israeli governments.

It speaks to inept American diplomacy.

And it serves as a warning to anyone else who might want closer relations with Israel.

Treaty in peril

Last year, Jordan decided not to extend the lease of two tracts of land along the Jordan-Israel boundary, a lease that had been agreed those many years ago when King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin signed under the dotted line in Wadi Araba.

And while Jordanian officials were at pains to stress that cancelling the lease did not imperil the treaty itself, it was an unmistakable sign that all is not well in relations with Israel.

In fact, it had been a long time coming. Amman has lost patience with Israel for a number of reasons.

First, of course, Israel has effectively ended the peace process with the Palestinians. The two-state solution – at least the pursuit of the two-state solution – was the bedrock upon which the Jordan-Israel treaty always rested.

King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin would not have found themselves signing on any dotted line in Wadi Araba in 1994 had it not been for the secret negotiations in Oslo the year before between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.

When news of those negotiations leaked out, Hussein, who had been kept in the dark, moved fast to secure his own deal, though he held off until after the Oslo agreement was signed.

The kingdom, of course, had had its own backchannel to Israel as far back as the first King Abdullah, the present king’s great grandfather. Abdullah, Hussein’s grandfather, was assassinated in Jerusalem in front of Hussein because of them.

Now Hussein saw an opportunity to not only bring those contacts out in the open, but to reap the benefits that peace with Israel might bring, especially vis-a-vis the US, which had been angered by Jordan’s neutrality during the first Gulf War.

Sensibly, and unlike the PLO, Hussein made sure to avoid US mediation when negotiating the treaty, wary of Israeli influence in Washington.

He got his agreement in 1994. It saw Jordan secure settled borders and the return of large tracts of land that Israel had occupied in 1967, an important water agreement, as well as debt forgiveness and a squadron of F-16s and other arms from the US.

He also secured Jordan’s position as custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites.

Bad faith

So far, so good, at least for Jordan. But the treaty was always predicated on a good faith attempt to solve the Palestinian issue.

The signs were not good from the outset. Israeli settlement construction in occupied territory continued unabated in spite of the 1993 Oslo agreement.

The assassination of Rabin in 1995 and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu the following year proved further setbacks.

Netanyahu never hid his opposition to Olso, and was dismissive of Jordan to the extent that he ordered an assassination attempt of Khaled Meshaal, head of the Hamas politburo, on Jordanian soil in 1997.

That saw King Hussein threaten to abrogate the treaty, and King Abdullah, like his father before him, has never placed any trust in Netanyahu since.

But even when Netanyahu was not in charge, many of the treaty’s promises were never fulfilled.

The peace process with the Palestinians quickly reached a dead end. Grandiose economic projects rarely saw the light of day and when they did, as in the Qualifying Industrial Zones that were meant to give free access to the US market, they had only limited impact.

As prime minister for the past decade, Netanyahu has overseen a steady decline in relations. Today, Amman seems powerless to exert any influence in Tel Aviv or Washington.

Jordan has asked for, but not received, prosecutions of those responsible for the murder of two Jordanian civilians at the Israeli embassy in Amman in 2017, and a Jordanian judge at the Allenby crossing with Israel in 2014.

The fate of 23 Jordanians held in Israeli prison, two of them under administrative detention, in which they can be held indefinitely without charge or trial, is also a source of growing friction.

What now?

Israel has repeatedly flouted the treaty. Jordan’s role as custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites has been undermined again and again, with Israel allowing religious zealots and others almost daily access to the Haram al-Sharif compound and closing the city’s holy sites at will.

US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital and move its embassy there only exacerbated these tensions and showed that Amman’s influence in Washington has become minimal under this administration.

Jordan is also fearful that whatever it turns out to be, Trump’s Ultimate Deal™ will leave Israel free to annex what land it wants.

That, in turn could push the “demographic problem” – i.e., the Palestinians – onto Jordan, an issue Jordan had thought its treaty with Israel had long since settled.

Nevertheless, the treaty remains hugely important to Jordan. It is one of the fundamental reasons the kingdom is still considered a key regional US ally. That in turn has seen crucial US aid to Jordan – which has quadrupled over the past 15 years – help stabilize the country in the face of growing public discontent over an otherwise stagnant economy, buffeted by repeated inflows of refugees.

That discontent has increasingly been directed at the diplomatic sphere, traditionally the sole purview of the king. The treaty was never popular in Jordan, with its majority Palestinian population, even if many understood it to be necessary. Still, a survey this month, which found that 70 percent of respondents wanted a “limiting” of political relations with Israel, seemed a direct rebuke of the monarchy’s handling of its neighbor.

Even parliament has called on King Abdullah to warn Israel that the treaty is in danger.

But there is also little wriggle room for Abdullah. The region has grown ever more unpredictable. Syria to the north and Iraq to the east are both in chaos. Egypt has gone through revolution and counterrevolution and is still deeply unstable. Lebanon has erupted.

Allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are consumed with shoring up an anti-Iran alliance, one that might include Israel, to counter what they have identified as their main challenger to regional leadership.

Erratic US leadership notwithstanding, Amman is unlikely to ditch its main source of support, both financially and militarily.

Jordan finds itself in a deeply uncomfortable position, damned this way or that, much like the position the PLO has found itself in as a result of its signed understandings with Israel.

On 10 November, Jordan is to take back possession from Israel of the two tracts of land it had leased to Israel under the 1994 treaty.

It marks a significant setback in Jordanian-Israeli relations, but it is hard to see what else Amman can do to signal its deep discontent with the current state of play.

Twenty-five years after it was signed, the Jordan-Israel treaty – which Hussein hoped would prove a deliverance for Jordan – has instead turned out to be a strait-jacket of the Oslo cut.