Wed, Jul 8, 2020

How Jordan responded to Israel’s annexation plans

MENASource by Seth J. Frantzman

Israel Middle East Politics & Diplomacy

A protester holds a poster of Jordan's King Abdullah as he takes part in a human chain during a sit-in against the annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel, in Amman, Jordan, June 27, 2020. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Israel is considering annexation of parts of the West Bank, potentially reversing decades of its own policy that called for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The discussion over annexation—which was ramped up after US President Donald Trump rolled out a peace plan in January—has been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and instability in Israel’s unity government. Missing from much of the discussion is Israel’s neighbor to the East, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Jordan is home to millions of Palestinians, mostly descendants of refugees, and asserts itself as a protector of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, giving it unique say over status quo issues in Jerusalem and concerns about threats to Palestinian rights. On July 7, Jordan, Egypt, France and Germany issued a historic joint statement opposing Israel’s annexation plans.

King Abdullah II of Jordan has repeatedly warned that Israel’s and the Trump administration’s actions are fueling potential instability. This could lead to conflict and also strain Israel-Jordan relations, which are rooted in a 1994 peace agreement that the United States helped broker. Israel has appeared to climb down from maximalist annexation plans and will forego annexing the Jordan valley, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims any annexation will advance peace. The Palestinian Authority has condemned Israel’s plans and Jordanian media is paying close attention to Washington’s next moves.

On June 29, former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muashar warned that Palestinians in the West Bank may shift demands from a two-state solution to demands for equal rights with Israelis. This would lead to a so-called “one-state solution,” in which Palestinians demand to be part of Israel instead of living under military rule. His message was that the Palestinian leadership’s only choice will be to change the equation such that Palestinians become the demographic majority under Israeli control, thus, prompting the international community to pressure Israel.

Jordan’s concerns are multi-fold. It needs economic assistance from its wealthier Gulf allies and from the US and the West. According to former Foreign Minister Muasher, Amman is also concerned that Israel might try to force Jordan to take responsibility for the Palestinians. Jordan had renounced claim to the West Bank in 1988 during the First Intifada so that the Palestinians could demand a state of their own. Jordan is reticent of some hawkish Israelis who have tried to argue that “Jordan is Palestine.” Muashar has been warning Israelis that this could be the end of two and a half decades of peace with Jordan. His voice appears to be a key surrogate for the Jordanians, warning the US, Turkish media, and anyone that will listen of the consequences (Turkey has been a keen supporter of the Palestinians opposing the US embassy move to Jerusalem).

The Kingdom has reached out to US senators and Arab countries—including Gulf states who have been warming to potential ties to Israel—to ask for support regarding the opposition of annexation. Israel reportedly sent Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to Amman to meet with Jordanian officials about their concerns. The same reports indicate that King Abdullah does not speak to Netanyahu—the Prime Minister of Israel and the Jordanian monarch have never had warm relations. This creates a situation in which Israel’s important neighbor, an interlocutor to the Palestinian leadership, is put in one of its most difficult diplomatic positions in the last few decades.

There is a long and bitter history between Jordan and Israel’s current leadership. It was under Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister that Israel attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan in 1997, embarrassing both countries. Then, in 2017, an Israeli embassy guard was involved in a shooting in Amman that Jordan views as murder. Jordan and Israel tried to defuse the crisis, but negative views of Israel remain for many Jordanian parliamentarians and the public.

Jordan has used incremental steps to show its displeasure with Israel’s policies and recent years have seen an uptick in incidents that have divided the countries. In 2017, a Jordanian soldier who murdered seven Israeli schoolchildren in the 1990s, was freed with support from Jordanian lawmakers. In 2019, Jordan ended Israeli leases on two pieces of land that were symbols of the 1994 peace agreement. Amman saw no reason to do Israel any favors and this was an easy, symbolic part of the peace agreement that it chose not to extend. Other countries have even sought to sour relations, with Russia revealing Israeli flights over Jordan to conduct Syrian airstrikes in November 2019.

One of the reasons Israel has taken Jordan’s public criticism for granted is because, privately, the two countries appear to enjoy high levels of cooperation on security issues. Jordan and Israel both faced potential fallout from the Syrian civil war. The US, Russia, and Jordan signed onto a deal that guaranteed a ceasefire in southern Jordan in 2017, which also benefited Israel. Syrian rebel “White Helmet” civil defense volunteers were transferred via Israel to Jordan in 2018, when the southern Syrian rebels collapsed in the face of a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive. These incidents point to amicable security understandings.

However, King Abdullah has been caught between a proverbial rock and hard place in regard to the Trump administration’s policies and Israel’s potential annexation. King Abdullah’s instincts, at first, were to meet frequently with Trump—in January, April, and September 2017—hoping to sway his views on the region and it appeared that they had an amicable relationship. However, Trump did not heed Jordan’s concerns over moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and relations soured in December 2017. Jordan was also critical of Israel’s growing connections with Oman and other Arab Gulf states in 2018 and 2019, asserting that Israel would have to end its occupation of the West Bank to get better relations.

Israel’s approach to annexation is to apply it in a minimal fashion, at first. This will test reactions in the Gulf and the region. But, whether or not a major crisis develops, the relationship with Jordan has been eroded in the time that Netanyahu has been in office. For many decades after Israel’s founding in 1948, Jordan played a key role and once had more positive relations with Israel’s leadership. At least on the surface, the Hashemite Kingdom is currently being pushed into a corner that is determined as much by geography as it is by Israel and the US publicly ignoring its concerns. Amman has, in the middle of protests in the West Bank over annexation, to contend with continuing friction in southern Syria—where Iran and Russia play a role—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) threats in Iraq, and the Gulf states to the south. Jordan is also a key security linchpin for CENTCOM, which hosts the annual Eager Lion drill with the US and supporting Tanf, a US base in Syria on Jordan’s northeast border. As such, Israel’s annexation casts a shadow over a variety of issues east of the Jordan river and the Hashemite Kingdom will have to keep a careful balance amid Israel’s new policies.

Seth J. Frantzman is the executive director of the The Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East. He holds a PhD from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a former assistant professor at Al-Quds University.