Twenty-five years ago, on October 26, 1994, Israel and Jordan ended decades of enmity and bloody wars when they signed a “Treaty of Peace” in the Arava Valley on the Israeli side of the border.
The next day, before King Hussein flew back to Amman, his Royal Jordanian plane, escorted by Israeli F-15 jets, circled over Jerusalem several times. The king and his wife were said to have been very moved as they looked at the Old City from above.
Nearly five years later, in January 1999, the king visited Israel again, and when he left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to honor the monarch by having two Israel Air Force fighter planes escort his aircraft in what the Foreign Ministry at the time called “a special salute fly-past.”
Royal visits have long since stopped, and so have grand gestures celebrating the bilateral relationship.
Netanyahu is again prime minister, but a quarter century after the historic peace agreement between the Jewish state and the Hashemite Kingdom was signed neither country is doing anything remotely significant to celebrate the historic milestone.
Among the Jordanian public, the so-called Wadi Araba Treaty was always largely regarded with resentment and suspicion. “It is a cold peace, and our relationship is getting colder,” Hussein’s son and heir King Abdullah II acknowledged in an interview 10 years ago.
But even Israel, where the accord is widely appreciated, and where the government often cites its peace with the Hashemite Kingdom as a blueprint for future interest-based agreements with other Arab states, has not organized any events to mark the anniversary.
There are some Israeli academic conferences, but neither the President’s Residence, the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Foreign Ministry has scheduled anything formal to highlight the quarter-century of peace with the neighbor to the east with which Israel shares its longest border.
Describing the ties as “cold peace” has long been a cliche. But relations between Amman and Jerusalem since those warm handshakes in the desert have truly never been frostier, analysts warn. Security and intelligence cooperation remain strong, but even bilateral trade is now declining. And while the criticism coming from Jordan is particularly harsh, it finds an echo on the Israeli side too.
“Twenty-five years since the Wadi Araba treaty was signed, peace has never seemed so distant — and much of that is due to today’s politics and Israeli government policies,” charged Taylor Luck, an Amman-based analyst and journalist. “While it is true that Israel and Jordan had never fully thawed their enmity from a cold peace to normalization on a people-to-people level, the past three years have seen relations between the two governments deteriorate to their very worst levels since even before the peace treaty.”
The preamble of the 1994 treaty spoke of the mutual desire to “develop friendly relations and cooperation” but also acknowledged the need to overcome “psychological barriers.” Despite the efforts of Hussein, and, to a lesser extent, his successor, many Jordanians have never accepted Israel’s legitimacy. And 25 years later, even some of those who were in favor of peace are disappointed and have begun turning against Israel.
“We are now at a point where not only do a majority of Jordanians at the popular level believe that the peace treaty with Israel is a list of broken promises and a lost cause, but a large number of decision-makers, intellectuals and even royals do as well,” Luck said.
The main reason cited by Jordanian commentators is Jerusalem’s ostensible failure to properly address Jordanian sensitivities on custodianship of and access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.
In the 1994 peace treaty, Israel promised to respect the “special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem” and vowed to “give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines” in future final status peace talks with the Palestinians.
“The straw that broke that camel’s back is the repeated Israeli acts of aggression against the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Israeli targeting of the Hashemite custodianship of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem,” said Oraib Rantawi, a Jordanian analyst and head of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies. “This issue is something that Jordan sees as a direct threat to it and its status and role. This issue is stirring up a lot of displeasure among the royal family and the Jordanian public.”
But it’s not only Jordan-based analysts who blame Israel for the chilly ties between the two countries.
“The outgoing Israeli government has not invested enough in promoting relations with Jordan,” said Nimrod Goren, who heads Mitvim — The Israel Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, which recently held a symposium on the matter in Amman.
“While the prime minister and his ministers talked a lot about the advancing relationship with the Gulf, their policies led to repeated tensions with our Eastern neighbor,” Goren added.
Yitzhak Gal, a researcher at Mitvim and an economist who specializes in Arab markets, said that Israel doesn’t properly appreciate the strategic importance of peace with Jordan.
“As a result, a sense of insult has been deeply ingrained in the Jordanian consciousness. Israel is seen as unreliable; problems are not being dealt with; dozens of projects are not being advanced; and except the security aspect, there are there are almost no communication channels between the countries.”
‘A major provocation’
Another major sticking point in bilateral relations, several analysts agreed, was the hero’s welcome Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave to an Israeli security guard after he shot dead two Jordanians during a 2017 stabbing attack on him at an Israeli Embassy residence in Amman.
“I am happy to see you here and that things ended the way they did. You acted well, calmly, and we also had an obligation to get you out,” Netanyahu told Ziv Moyal at the time, a day after he and Israel’s ambassador to Amman, Einat Schlein, hastily returned to Jerusalem.
“This was a major provocation,” said Rantawi.
Israel’s embassy in Amman, which was shut in the wake of the July 23, 2017, incident, only reopened half a year later, and Schlein was replaced by another career diplomat, Amir Weissbrod.
Israel paid some $5 million in compensation to the Jordanian victims, though Moyal was not tried in an Israeli court, as Amman had demanded.
Today, Israel’s embassy to the Hashemite kingdom is “fully functioning,” a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said this week. He declined to discuss in any details the embassy’s operation, citing security concerns.
Jordan’s ambassador to Tel Aviv, Ghassan Majali, declined to be interviewed for this article. He has carefully avoided any publicity since his arrival in November 2018.
Jordan was “look[ing] forward during this coming year to witness a breakthrough in the peace process that will enable all parties to enjoy comprehensive, just and lasting peace,” he told President Reuven Rivlin at the time as he handed him his letter of credence at a ceremony in Jerusalem.
King Abdullah II “considers reaching peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis a cornerstone to peace and stability in our region and throughout the world,” Majali added, stressing that the king considered Israeli-Palestinian peace a top priority.
At the ceremony, Rivlin acknowledged “differences of opinion between us” and emphasized the need to “bring to an end to the tragedy between us and the Palestinians.” He also hailed bilateral projects regarding water management and tourism, calling for more cooperation in various areas.
He called relations between the countries “really strong.”
There are, of course, several other reasons for the current icy climate in Jerusalem-Amman relations, such as the decision by the US to move its embassy to Jerusalem and Israel’s subsequent campaign to get other countries to follow suit, and, more recently, Netanyahu’s vow to annex the Jordan Valley and other settlements in the West Bank.
Israeli leaders’ talk of extending sovereignty into the West Bank revive Jordanians’ fears that their country will again be considered an “alternative homeland” for Palestinians, several analysts said.
Tellingly, a website created by the Royal Hashemite Court in honor of the late king Hussein notes that the peace treaty with Israel “defined Jordan’s western borders clearly and conclusively for the first time, putting an end to the dangerous and false Zionist claim that ‘Jordan is Palestine.’”
To be sure, the website also stressed that the peace agreement also included a series of protocols establishing a mutually beneficial framework of relations in fields such as trade, transportation, tourism, communications, energy, culture, science, navigation, the environment, health and agriculture, as well as cooperatory agreements for the Jordan Valley and the Aqaba-Eilat region.”
Bilateral security cooperation is improving
As gloomy as the political-diplomatic relationship may be — King Abdullah reportedly refused to meet Netanyahu earlier this summer; their last public meeting took place in 2014 — security and intelligence cooperation between Amman and Jerusalem is solid.
Oded Eran, who was Israel’s ambassador to Jordan in 1997-2000, described security ties as “excellent.”
“They are the strongest ties between Jordan and Israel. The main reason is because they face shared threats like Islamic extremism and terrorism,” Eran said in a phone interview, adding that security relations between the two have been “impacted less by political considerations.”
Baruch Spiegel, a retired IDF general who oversaw the army’s relations with other militaries, agreed that security cooperation with Jordan was in very good shape.
“There is a close daily connection on security issues between Israel and Jordan, which has contributed significantly to regional stability,” he told The Times of Israel on Thursday.
“This successful security coordination has made Israel’s border with Jordan its quietest border, which has allowed for many other forms of cooperation related to agriculture, ecology and the environment to exist.”
Spiegel added that the security coordination mechanism between Jordan and Israel enables them “to quickly deal with and solve security issues.”
“The border used to be dangerous, but the two sides have turned it into one of peace and stability,” he said.
Israel’s border with Jordan is its only frontier not partly supervised by United Nations peacekeepers.
Bilateral trade, however, after initial positive growth has recently started to decline. In 2018, Jordan exported to Israel only $108 million in domestic goods compared to a paltry $14.1 million from Israel.
“This is well below significant for both sides, and certainly much below the potential for these two vital geographic neighbors with similar foreign alliances, outlook on world affairs and levels of skilled workforces,” Luck said.
While trade is lagging, a number of speakers at a recent conference at the Institute for National Security Studies about Jordanian-Israeli ties pointed to the rising number of Jordanians working at hotels in Eilat as a positive trend.
Some 2,000 Jordanian laborers hold jobs at hotels in the Eilat area, according to the Foreign Ministry.
End of the ‘Isle of Peace’
Perhaps the most resonant symbol of a relationship in trouble is the diplomatic struggle over the so-called “Isle of Peace,” a border area that includes farmland and Israel’s first electric power station.
Jordan announced in October 2018 that it would not renew an annex of the peace treaty that allows Israelis to visit and Israeli farmers to use two plots of land along the border.
Announcing the decision, Abdullah said: “[Naharayim] and [Tzofar] are Jordanian lands and they will remain Jordanian lands. We are exercising our full sovereignty on our land.”
The peace treaty granted Israel access to Naharayim and Tzofar for 25 years with the option for a renewal. The two areas together span 1,000 dunams (247 acres).
The Israeli government vowed to try to persuade Amman to reconsider. But time is about to run out, and there is no sign that Jordan will do so.
“This is one of those rare cases in Jordan where the people, the government, the king, and the parliament are all in unison on this issue,” Daoud Kuttab, an Amman-based analyst who writes for Al-Monitor and runs a local radio station, said in an interview earlier this year. “That’s what makes it much more difficult for Jordan to retract this statement.”
Jordan has said it will officially reclaim Naharayim and Tzofar in November.
Naharayim became known as the Isle of Peace in the aftermath of a deadly March 1997 attack in which a group of schoolgirls from Beit Shemesh were fired upon during an outing to the area. The girls and their unarmed teachers were standing on a hill above an abandoned lake in the enclave when a Jordanian soldier opened fire and killed seven of the schoolchildren.
What needs to be done to improve Israel-Jordan relations ?
Tensions between Jerusalem and Amman are almost as old as the peace agreement itself. The first major crisis occurred in 1997, after Netanyahu had replaced Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister, when Israel’s Mossad spy agency tried (and failed) to assassinate senior Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in broad daylight on the streets of Amman.
“There is no chemistry between the king and Netanyahu,” said Rantawi, the Jordanian analyst. “I believe the Jordanian side is awaiting the moment that Netanyahu will be absent from the political arena. It is true that the positions of Benny Gantz are not entirely different than Netanyahu, but the latter performs his work in a provocative and ugly way.”
As angry as Amman is about Israeli policies on the Temple Mount and the Jordan Valley, the peace treaty is not in immediate jeopardy, Rantawi stressed.
“In the medium- and long-term, however, I do believe it is in danger. Jordan and Israel could arrive at a point in which the agreement no longer has value.”
The Israel that made peace with Jordan no longer exists, Rantawi claimed. “The nationalist and religious right-wing are governing it. The Israel of Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor party is not here at all anymore. There is a different Israel today, which does not respect the interests of others. It has transformed into a burden on Jordan’s stability.”
Hence, if a popular referendum were held on the treaty today, most Jordanians would vote against it, he estimated.
“That being said, Jordan has its interests related to security, economics and its relations with the US,” he added. “It will not make gambles with the agreement right now. But if the extremist and nationalist right-wing approach continues, it could decide to make a move later on.”
In the meantime, relations, cold as they may be, continue to function. A quarter century after the peace deal was signed, El Al, Israel’s national carrier, is no longer offering flights to Amman. But Royal Jordanian continues to operate the Tel Aviv-Amman route up to three times a day. Without escorts by the Israeli Air Force.