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Analysis'The Hamzah saga shook up a lot of people'

Amid signs of fragility, Biden and Bennett move to shore up Jordan’s Abdullah

Water shortage, tensions in royal family, economic woes push nervous US and Israel to show of support for king, fearing fall of key ally could have disastrous effects on region

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

King Abdullah II of Jordan, right, meets with US Vice President Joe Biden, at the Husseiniya Palace in Amman, Jordan, March 10, 2016. (AP/Raad Adayleh)
King Abdullah II of Jordan, right, meets with US Vice President Joe Biden, at the Husseiniya Palace in Amman, Jordan, March 10, 2016. (AP/Raad Adayleh)

Both Israel and the United States made major gestures to Jordan and its ruler King Abdullah II this week, a sign that they share serious concerns over the kingdom’s stability.

On Tuesday, the US administration announced that Abdullah will travel to the US later this month and will be the first Middle East leader to visit the Biden White House.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed Jordan’s role as “a key security partner and ally of the United States,” and said the visit would “showcase Jordan’s leadership role in promoting peace and stability in the region.”

Two days later, Israel agreed to dramatically increase the amount of water it supplies to Jordan in an effort to battle a devastating shortage, as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi.

And on Thursday it was confirmed that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Abdullah met in secret last week at the crown palace in Amman, in the first summit between the countries’ leaders in over three years.

Under the deal signed Thursday, Israel will supply Jordan with an additional 50 million cubic meters (65 million cubic yards) of water in 2021, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said.

The two also agreed to raise a cap on Jordanian exports to the West Bank from $160 million to $700 million.

Water pours into an agricultural irrigation pool in Ghor al-Haditha, around 80km south of the Jordanian capital Amman, April 20, 2021. (Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP)

Analysts say the moves, which come months after Abdullah’s half-brother was arrested on suspicion of plotting a coup against the king, are no coincidence.

The saga “probably shook up a lot of people in the administration more than they let on, and probably in Israel as well,” John Hannah, senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, told The Times of Israel.

Biden and Bennett are now taking steps to help ensure stability in the kingdom, which plays a central role in the national security of both countries.

A kingdom unsettled

This week’s moves indicate that Bennett and Biden see a need to shore up the Hashemite regime.

Amman’s empty Roman Theater on March 18, 2020, as Jordan takes measures to fight the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

Frustration in Jordan has simmered for years against the background of economic troubles, political repression and doubts about Abdullah’s legitimacy. In the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated many of the public’s grievances, albeit mostly within the confines of the monarchy’s tight control of free expression.

Jordan’s strict lockdown was initially effective in slowing the spread of the virus, but it wreaked havoc on the economy. Unemployment reached nearly 25% by the end of 2020, as the economy suffered its worst contraction in decades.

Tribal groups that have traditionally been seen as the bedrock of regime support have been increasingly critical of not only the government in recent years, but of the entire ruling system.

In April, rare palace intrigue spilled into the open, as King Abdullah’s half-brother Prince Hamzah was placed under house arrest. The dramatic and very public episode shone a spotlight on fissures that have the potential to cause the entire edifice of the Hashemite regime to crumble, with deleterious effects for Israel and its security.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II laughs with his half-brother, then-crown prince Hamzah Bin Hussein, right, on April 2, 2001 (AP Photo/Yousef Allan)

On top of those woes, Jordan is one of the most water-starved countries in the world. It draws nearly 60 percent of its water from underground aquifers, extracting at twice the rate that the groundwater can be renewed. The rest comes from rivers and streams.

Population growth in Jordan, combined with the absorption of over one million Syrian refugees, has burdened the kingdom’s already insufficient water supplies. Water theft and inadequate infrastructure have exacerbated the situation.

The unreliable water supply has the potential to cause significant unrest in the kingdom.

A ‘creative’ agreement

The 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel features detailed agreements on water sharing and access. Annex II, entitled “Water and Related Matters,” stipulates that “Israel and Jordan shall cooperate in finding sources for the supply to Jordan of an additional quantity of 50 million cubic meters a year of water of drinkable standards.”

The water agreement is described by officials as the one non-security aspect of the peace deal that functions smoothly.

“It’s a successful and very creative agreement,” concurred Nadav Tal, water officer at EcoPeace Middle East.

View of the Sea of Galilee as seen from the promenade of Tiberias on March 18, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Jordan also supplies Israel with water for agricultural purposes in the Arava Valley.

Doubling the amount of water Israel supplies to Jordan is well within Israel’s capabilities.

“We have the capability because we have no shortage now because we’ve had two very good winters, with a lot of rain,” said former energy ministry Yuval Steinitz. “So now it’s not difficult to provide.”

Steinitz added that Israel began the process of doubling its desalination capacity during his tenure, and that one of the reasons behind the ongoing project to build a reverse water carrier to the Sea of Galilee is to provide Jordan with desalinated water.

Likud ministers Yuval Steinitz and Ze’ev Elkin (R) arrive to the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

The water Israel provides Jordan flows from the Sea of Galilee to a pumping station at Kibbutz Degania, and from there to the Dan Simchi pumping station at Ashdot Yaakov, where it is transferred to the King Abdullah Canal in Jordan, explained Tal.

However, the increased supply from Israel won’t extract Jordan from its water troubles.

“The additional 50 million cubic meters, even 100, doesn’t meet Jordan’s water deficit,” pointed out Oded Eran, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies​ and former ambassador to Jordan.

According to one estimate, Jordan’s water is enough to sustain two million people, in a country that has close to ten million — a figure swelled over the past decade by 1.5 million refugees, most of them fleeing civil war in neighboring Syria.

A Syrian boy carries a water jug to his family’s tent at the Zaatari Refugee Camp, in Mafraq, Jordan (photo credit: AP/Mohammad Hannon/File)

“But an agreement on the water creates an opening for more comprehensive talks about water, and maybe for other issues,” said Eran.

Avoiding a nightmare scenario

Israel views Jordan as a reliable buffer against hostile states to the east — once Iraq, now Iran. Israel’s border with Jordan, and the Israel-controlled frontier between the West Bank and Jordan, has remained an oasis of quiet even as Iran’s armed proxies entrench themselves from Baghdad to Beirut, and jihadist groups grow in the Sinai.

A weakened regime in Amman could create a power vacuum that would allow terrorist groups to establish a foothold all along Jordan’s border with Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian refugees in Jordan could inspire dangerous unrest in the West Bank, and far more radical elements could replace the Jordan-funded Islamic Waqf on the Temple Mount. Iran would also likely seek to take advantage of the chaos to open a new front against Israel.

The United States sees the kingdom’s strategic importance in a similar fashion.

“Jordan is such an important piece of the puzzle in securing our interests and achieving some level of stability and security in the region,” said Hannah. “Whenever you ask the royal palace for help on a significant security or intelligence issue, invariably the answer is yes.”

Illustrative photo of a Jordanian soldier during a military drill in Amman, Jordan, on April 19, 2015 (AP/Raad Adayleh)

Hannah called the potential for instability in the kingdom “one of those nightmare scenarios for the United States.”

The invitation of the Jordanian king to the White House for a meeting with Biden is a significant vote of confidence in the monarch, and could help Abdullah in a number of ways.

Biden will likely announce his commitment to economic and military aid to the kingdom. He may well urge Gulf states to meet their commitments for economic assistance as well.

It is also conceivable that Biden will push Israel to agree to new concessions to the Palestinians as a gesture to Abdullah.

US President Donald Trump (R) shakes hands with King Abdullah II of Jordan in the Oval Office at the White House as First Lady Melania Trump and Queen Rania look on in Washington, DC, on April 5, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM)

The visit will mark a change in US policy. The Trump administration seemed insensitive to Jordanian concerns, prioritizing its relations with Gulf allies, Egypt and Israel.

Trump’s peace plan, unveiled in January 2020, would have Israel annexing up to 30% of the West Bank, a proposal that tapped into Jordanian fears.

Moreover, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s secret 2020 visit to Saudi Arabia raised concerns in Amman that the warming ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh could lead to Israel shifting the leading Muslim role on the Temple Mount from the Jordanians to the Saudis, possibly with US backing.

A year earlier, in 2019, Abdullah said he was under pressure to alter his country’s historic role on the Tempe Mount, but stated that he wouldn’t change his position.

Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy has enjoyed its unique role on the holy site – which it, not Israel, claims is “custodianship” – since 1924.

“I will never change my position toward Jerusalem in my life,” Abdullah said at the time. “All my people are with me.”

He did not specify what kind of pressure he was encountering.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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