Jared Kushner’s Peace Plan Would Turn Jordan Upside Down

If the Trump administration seeks to strip Palestinian refugees of their status, it will destabilize one of America’s closest allies in the region.

Jordanian protesters wave their national flags and Palestinian flags during a demonstration against the U.S. president's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, on December 15, 2017, in the Jordanian capital Amman.
Jordanian protesters wave their national flags and Palestinian flags during a demonstration against the U.S. president's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, on December 15, 2017, in the Jordanian capital Amman. (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s attempt to pressure Jordan to strip its Palestinian refugees of their status struck a nerve in the kingdom at a time of unprecedented economic and political turbulence. In presenting their ill-conceived plan to Jordanian officials, U.S. peace negotiators Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have demonstrated a bias and ineptitude that will derail Washington’s self-proclaimed peace plan and further undermine U.S. credibility in the Middle East.

Jordan is home to almost 2.2 million registered Palestinian refugees—more than any country in the region. When Palestinians were expelled from their homes in the British Mandate of Palestine during the war that led to Israel’s independence, the kingdom welcomed the refugees and granted them citizenship to ease their humanitarian burden, but in a limited capacity so as not to affect Palestinians’ national aspirations or their political future. They are still considered “stateless” awaiting repatriation, as provided by Jordan’s legal, regional, and international commitments. The popular phrase “Jordan is not Palestine” was and remains a vital national security concern in the kingdom.

For almost seven decades, the poorest refugees in Jordan have been cared for by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA operates 171 schools in Jordan, serving more than 121,000 students. Its 25 primary health centers handle more than 1.5 million visits a year, and 10 recognized refugee camps shelter around 370,000 refugees.

The White House’s goal, detailed in internal emails from Jared Kushner to his colleague Jason Greenblatt that were obtained by Foreign Policy, is “to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA” and strip refugee status from all but the few living Palestinians who fled British Mandatory Palestine in 1948—a plan that reveals a profound ignorance of Jordan’s current political and economic woes.

Kushner seems convinced that UNRWA “perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.” President Donald Trump’s son-in-law turned senior advisor, who lacks any credible diplomatic experience in Middle East affairs, expressed his view that, “Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.” What he fails to understand is that his half-baked plan risks undermining the legitimacy and sovereignty of Jordan, Washington’s closest ally and partner in the Middle East. In this sense, taking the refugee issue off the negotiating table is, as Trump is fond of saying, tantamount to cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Despite the generous foreign aid Amman receives, with a new infusion on the way from the Gulf States this week, it has been struggling with an economic crisis fueled by domestic and international factors, including the spillover from conflicts next door in Iraq and Syria. Widespread tax evasion has further contributed to ballooning Jordan’s debt to 95 percent of GDP. The lack of funds has triggered runaway inflation at a time when the state struggles to provide food and water for 670,000 poverty-stricken Syrian refugees. Proposed tax reforms and price hikes this spring spurred a general strike by labor unions that brought down Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki. New Prime Minister Omar Razzaz’s tenuous popularity hinges on whether he will confront Jordan’s core political corrosion.

Amid this tense political climate, with a single-minded goal to dissolve UNRWA at all costs, Kushner reportedly offered to hand Jordan the millions the United States gives annually to UNRWA in exchange for absorbing full responsibility for Palestinian refugees. King Abdullah rejected the offer out of hand, and Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi said such a move would have had “extremely dangerous humanitarian, political and security implications for refugees and for the whole region.”

Some officials in the Trump administration might naively consider Jordan too weak to resist U.S. pressure to accept White House commands. Jordan is certainly a close U.S. ally that is significantly dependent on U.S. aid. However, having survived many existential challenges since 1946, Jordan’s monarchy is not willing to commit national suicide just to please Washington.

The White House would also do well to consider the risks of destabilizing its ally. Palestinian civic leaders in Jordan embrace UNRWA as a protector of Palestinian funds and a guarantor of their livelihood in the face of entrenched corruption in the Jordanian government. A wholesale transfer of UNRWA funds to that government would almost certainly be a money grab by a ravenous bureaucracy, sparking violent protests that could potentially collapse the new government in a storm of anti-authoritarian fervor. A formerly reliable insurer of stability would crumble, paving the way for unimaginable devastation and suffering.

Trump has accused UNRWA of perpetuating the refugee crisis by providing essential services as refugees wait to be repatriated, rather than working to permanently resettle them elsewhere. But nothing in UNRWA’s mandate gives it the authority to resettle anyone, even if it wanted to, and a unilateral attempt to strong-arm Jordan into upending multilateral agreements shows an ignorance of the political realities on the ground.

At last week’s U.N. General Assembly meeting, Trump announced he would unveil his plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace within four months. The White House has closed the PLO office in Washington and relocated its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, moves that confirm a pro-Israel bias that all but guarantees Palestinian noncooperation. Alienating its longstanding ally Jordan would further cement the growing U.S. rift with Arab countries and undermine prospects for peace.

If the plan bars more international aid to Palestinians, a humanitarian crisis will envelop the region—including Israel—with violence. And, if Kushner’s plan succeeds, ultimately host countries such as Jordan would bear the consequences of UNRWA’s demise. This explains the enthusiastic lead taken by King Abdullah and Jordanian diplomats at the General Assembly to raise millions of dollars in funds for UNRWA to replace U.S. funding cuts and avoid the collapse of the refugee agency.

Jordan has avoided calamity for now. To prevent further insecurity, the United States should reinstate its funding for UNRWA and pursue a just and comprehensive negotiation process that treats the Palestinians as a party equally deserving of sovereignty and security rather than simply pandering to Israel.

Khalil E. Jahshan is the executive director of Arab Center Washington DC, a nonprofit, independent research organization dedicated to furthering the political, economic, and social understanding of the Arab world in the United States and to providing insight on U.S. policies and interests in the Middle East. Twitter: @KhalilEJahshan

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