- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
While I was in Jordan, King Abdullah gave a lengthy interview to Haaretz about the Israeli-Palestinian situation in which he warned that "We’re sliding back into the darkness." My conversations with more than two dozen Jordanian officials, political activists, journalists and analysts suggest that on this, at least, the King reflects a widespread Jordanian consensus. Jordanians are growing increasingly frustrated with the Obama team’s approach, alarmed at Netanyahu’s unpunished intransigence, and downright frantic about the trend in Jerusalem. If we don’t start seeing progress soon, with stronger American leadership, then the "tinderbox" could explode.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was last in Jordan about six months ago, I found a great deal of optimism over the appointment of George Mitchell and the high profile Obama gave to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But now those hopes seem to have largely evaporated. The launch of Israeli-Palestinian talks which they had expected by June continue to drift in limbo, while Obama’s failure to deliver on the settlement freeze has — just as so many predicted — eroded his credibility. How could the Americans have allowed Netanyahu to not only defy U.S. demands on settlements but to not even pay any significant price? Again and again, from all sectors of Jordanian political society, I heard the same refrain: Obama’s heart is in the right place and we want him to succeed, but he’s just not getting it done.
Jerusalem weighed particularly heavily in the Jordanian consciousness. I heard all kinds of dire warnings about how Israeli provocations there could suddenly spark an uncontrollable escalation back into Intifada. As the King put it, "we are seeing problems in Jerusalem that will directly destabilise not only the relationship with Jordan…but will also create a tinderbox that will have a major flashpoint throughout the Islamic world." Most Jordanians I talked to agreed.
While I was there I attended a demonstration focused on Jerusalem after Friday prayers at the Salah al-Din mosque close by the Prime Minister’s office. It was quite small, to be honest (even keeping in mind that it was cross-scheduled with the parade celebrating Amman’s 100th anniversary). But the large scale deployment of security forces across the street suggests that the regime was taking no chances. (Muslim Brotherhood leaders told me that they had led a much larger rally of their own out in Zarqa at the same time; I wasn’t there, so can’t say how that one went.)
There was also little optimism about a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation (and this was before the public exchange between Abbas and Meshaal which Daniel Levy wrote about for me this morning). Nobody thought that the profound gap in interests between the two parties could be bridged, particularly after the devastating impact of the PA’s deferral of the Goldstone report on Abbas’s popularity. Beyond that, with no meaningful peace talks in sight there was little reason for either side to make the painful concessions necessary — whether on elections, on security sector reform, or on the existential issues of identity and commitment to negotiations.
Indeed, what I heard from a number of the more hawkish Muslim Brotherhood leaders suggests that at least some in Hamas see a greater interest in staying out. They generally admitted that Hamas faced tough conditions, with the blockade of Gaza and the escalating PA repression of its cadres in the West Bank. But that was secondary. The PA, by their argument, is in a death spiral. Talks with Netanyahu will inevitably fail, at which point Abu Mazen and the PA will no longer be able to keep up pretences. Signing on to such a PA would only compromise their own legitimacy and viability, alienating the vast mainstream of the Palestinian people without any commensurate benefits. Rather than be associated with the impending failure, they suggested, better to stay outside and wait for the fruits of that failure to fall into their lap.
So what should be done? The Jordanians who supported the peace process strongly urged Obama to quickly lay down an American plan, a comprehensive framework for negotiations with specific recommendations on the most sensitive and controversial points. The framework should build on previous agreements, not go back to the starting point and re-open previously agreed points. Given the severe weakness of the Palestinian negotiators, it would take American initiative to make sure that the talks started on acceptable grounds. And they didn’t think it was a good idea for the US to wait for the "right time" to present such a plan, because at this point the right time might never come.
"Borders first", the idea du jour, would be a disaster. No Palestinian or Arab, I was told, could accept anything which deferred the refugee issue (presumably in perpetuity). Jordan in particular, of course, is deeply invested in some resolution of the refugee issue. While Jordanian officials seem satisfied with the assurances they’ve received from the United States that they rejected the perpetual Israeli "Jordan is Palestine" notion, at the popular level the fears that Israel will impose the final settlement of Palestinians in Jordan resonate deeply and permeate almost every aspect of Jordanian public discourse. And for the same reason, don’t expect to see Jordanian troops playing a role in the West Bank.
I could go on, but this probably is enough to paint the picture. Jordanian officials and the public alike are deeply, profoundly worried about the course of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Worried whispering about (or eager anticipation of) the outbreak of a new Intifada was everywhere. Confidence in Obama’s ability to deliver, especially with regard to Israel, has collapsed. But most still hope that it’s not too late for Obama to reverse course. His words at the UN General Assembly rallied their spirits briefly. But it won’t last absent clear progress towards resuming the talks based on a clear, mutually acceptable framework for negotiations. If that doesn’t happen by the end of the year, then we could be staring at the abyss.