The Middle East Channel
Jordan is talking, but is anyone listening?
Jordan’s King Abdullah has not been shy about expressing his thoughts about Israel of late. "If we hit the summer and there’s no active [peace] process," he warned the other day, "there’s a very good chance for conflict." Calling Jordan’s ties with Israel the worst they have been since 1994, the Hashemite king warned that ...
Jordan’s King Abdullah has not been shy about expressing his thoughts about Israel of late. "If we hit the summer and there’s no active [peace] process," he warned the other day, "there’s a very good chance for conflict." Calling Jordan’s ties with Israel the worst they have been since 1994, the Hashemite king warned that Israel’s very future is in jeopardy if it does not move toward peace. And yet few seem especially concerned by these warnings from the Arab leader who has traditionally been Israel’s closest partner in the Middle East. They should be.
Discounting Jordanian warnings is a time-honored tradition. In his book, The Arab Center, former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher recounts a telling anecdote about his time as Jordan’s first ambassador to Israel, following the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. In early 1995 Muasher met with the then-leader of the Israeli opposition, Likud Chairman Binjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu urged a Likud-Jordan relationship that included collusion against the creation of a Palestinian state. When Muasher rejected this, emphatically noting that Jordanian policy supported a Palestinian state, Netanyahu’s rather smug response was "Mr. Ambassador, I think I understand the Jordanian position better than you do." Netanyahu was wrong then, and it seems that he and his government might be making the same mistake once again.
It is a mistake to assume that the Jordanians never mean what they say. Their pronouncements are at times treated with polite interest and then studiously ignored. Yet this is a country that warned the United States that invading Iraq in 2003 would be destabilizing, lead to more terrorism and militancy, and ensure the rise of Iranian regional power and a strategic imbalance in the Gulf. Check, check, and check.
Unfortunately, the tendency to misread Jordanian policy appears to be alive and well, especially among the right in Israel. The danger of Netanyahu’s coalition misreading current conditions is a danger not only for Israel, but for the Palestinians, for Jordan, and for the United States as well. Jordan is a close ally of the United States and one of only two Arab states to have a peace treaty with Israel. So when this center of moderation and caution issues the occasional dire warning to its allies, friends, or neighbors, it is worth listening to.
The Jordanians have consistently argued — for a decade — that the real issue of insecurity in the region is not Iraq, but Israel and Palestine. And the Jordanians are increasingly blunt about the urgency of a solution, and the dire consequences, including even more regional wars, if a meaningful settlement is not reached. At the Arab League Summit in Sirte, Libya, Jordan’s King Abdullah underscored the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative (in Beirut, 2002) and warned against "wasting this last opportunity" for a Palestinian-Israeli peace.
He also lashed out against Israeli measures to demographically change East Jerusalem, while expanding settlements in the West Bank, thereby make a peaceful solution less and less possible.
This was not just ideological grandstanding in the inter-Arab political sphere. Indeed, the king made similar and even stronger comments in a meeting of the editors of Jordan’s major newspapers and also in an unusually harsh assessment in his interview with the Wall Street Journal. To both the American and Jordanian press, Abdullah warned of the dangers of a "third Intifada," while describing Jerusalem as a "time bomb," and threats of an Israeli strike on Iran as a "Pandora’s box." He even suggested that Israel’s current international relations are worse than those of North Korea. While the last comparison may be too harsh, the themes were consistent to multiple audiences: Patience is not just wearing thin; it is simply gone. People across the region are through waiting for open-ended negotiations and want to see a meaningful endgame that delivers a Palestinian state and Israeli security; in short, the two-state solution about which there is so much consensus, and so little progress.
Many Jordanians fear that complete collapse of the peace process might lead to an Israeli attempt to once again revive the idea that Jordan should become the Palestinian state, which is a longstanding idea on the Israeli right wing. Israel’s recent policy shifts, suggesting the looming expulsion of potentially thousands of Palestinians, has only added to this worry. King Abdullah has warned repeatedly that "there is no such thing as a ‘Jordan option.’" Neither the Jordan option nor a Jordanian-administered West Bank are real options. The Jordanians support a two-state solution and see a Palestinian state as the best guarantor of the regime’s long-term survival. For the East Bank Jordanians who dominate Jordan’s government, intelligence services, and armed forces, the collective attitude toward the "Jordan option" can be summarized as "not now, not ever." Nor does Jordan want to take over control of the West Bank to facilitate an Israeli withdrawal: "We will not agree to replace Israeli tanks in the West Bank with Jordanian tanks, "the king said, "and we will not allow Israel to solve the problems of its occupation of the West Bank and the resulting suffering and injustice at Jordan’s expense."
This is not the first post-peace-treaty rift in Jordanian-Israeli relations. Earlier iterations share the common theme of Likud-led governments, and especially Netanyahu’s leadership. The most spectacular, of course, came with the attempted assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Amman, a provocation which outraged and humiliated then-King Hussein. Jordanian officials grumble in private that Netanyahu, who was prime minister when King Abdullah II succeeded his long-serving father, King Hussein, disrespected the new monarch and was patronizing in his interactions with the new king. He seemed to think, yet again, that he knew more about Jordan’s "actual" positions than the king himself did. He was wrong in 1995, wrong in 1999, and appears to be wrong now.
As the situation on the ground gets worse and the prospects of negotiations grow dimmer, that leaves the king’s recent question to Israel (via his Wall Street Journal interview) valid and even urgent: "Wouldn’t it be better today when you’re in a stronger position to make peace not only with your neighbors but with the whole Arab-Islamic world than kicking this problem down the road two or three years where your options become reduced?" That’s a good question. And with no illusions about the difficulties involved (including dealing with the Hamas factor) and in no way minimizing Israel’s real security concerns, it should also be taken as friendly and even sage advice. Maybe it’s the Jordanians who have a better idea of Israel’s real interests than Prime Minister Netanyahu does. In any case, when an ally least known for hyperbole increasingly issues dire warnings about the dangers of a third Intifada or worse, while also offering real solutions, it may be time for Israel, the United States, and others to listen up.
Curtis R. Ryan is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.