Dismantling ‘Isle of Peace,’ Jordan chooses hardliners over Israel ties

King Abdullah’s announcement that he won’t renew clauses in 1994 peace deal that lease border lands to Israel comes amid rising domestic pressure and economic woes

The power plant at the Isle of Peace. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The power plant at the Isle of Peace. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

When Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, special arrangements were made for parcels of land near Naharayim in the north and Tzofar in the southern Arava desert. Although the land had belonged to Israel for decades and had been farmed by Israeli settlers, under the treaty, it was transferred to Jordan.

Then, in a spirit of cooperation, it was leased back to Israel, so that the farmers could continue cultivating their fields. From that time on, Israeli visitors were warmly welcomed to the Israeli enclaves inside the Kingdom of Jordan (which hold the remains of a hydroelectric power station build by Jews in 1921), and the amicable agreement was tangible proof that peaceful coexistence could be a reality.

Nearly three years later, in March 1997, a group of schoolgirls from Beit Shemesh participated in an outing to Naharayim. The girls and their unarmed teachers were standing on a hill above an abandoned lake in the enclave when a Jordanian soldier aimed his weapon in their direction and pulled the trigger. Seven girls were killed in the massacre.

Following that tragic event, the late King Hussein made an unprecedented trip to each of the victims’ homes to express his personal sorrow and the grief of his nation. Eventually, new security arrangements were finalized that ensured the safety of Israeli visitors.

Naharayim memorial for the 7 Beit Shemesh girls slain in the area (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Naharayim memorial for the seven Beit Shemesh girls slain in the area. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Due to that spirit of cooperation, and in spite of the bloodshed, the so-called island became known as the Isle of Peace.

On Sunday, a year ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Israel-Jordan peace accord, Jordan’s King Abdullah II announced he would not be renewing the specific agreement — dismantling the Isle of Peace, and deeply denting the fragile truce that has lasted for almost a quarter of a century.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and King Hussein shortly after signing the Israel Jordan Peace Treaty in 1994 (Photo credit: Yaakov Sa’ar/ GPO)

Last year, the two countries were embroiled in a diplomatic standoff, following the shooting deaths of two Jordanians in July 2017, by an Israeli security guard, Ziv Moyal, who Israel said opened fire in self-defense after one of the men tried to stab him. They only reached an agreement to end the diplomatic fight in January, when a Jordanian government spokesperson said he had received from Israel an “official memorandum” apologizing for the deaths of the two Jordanians, as well as for the killing of a Jordanian judge in a separate incident in 2014.

But, while Israeli officials had reportedly been aware in recent months of Jordanian murmurings to cancel the land agreement, Abdullah’s announcement — and particularly the sharp tone of his statement — came as something of a surprise.

“We are practicing our full sovereignty on our land,” Abdullah said. “Our priority in these regional circumstances is to protect our interests and do whatever is required for Jordan and the Jordanians.”

Abdullah — who made the announcement on the Hebrew anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the peace deal with the current king’s father — did not give a reason for his decision, but his words signaled he had been under domestic pressure.

Former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, former US president Bill Clinton, center, and former King Hussein of Jordan, during the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty in Aqaba, Jordan, 1994. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90)

In recent months, Amman has faced intense calls to cancel the lease agreement, with several mass demonstrations urging the government to “reassert Jordanian sovereignty” over the area. The pressure was increased when 80 lawmakers signed a letter to the government urging the cancellation.

On Sunday, Jordanian parliament members praised the move, with Saleh al-Armouti, a regular critic of the king, hailing the decision as “a positive step that restores dignity to the Jordanian citizen and sovereignty over his land.”

Economic pressure, Palestinian support

Abdullah may also have been keen to distance himself from close ties to Israel, amid tense relations between the Palestinian Authority and the US administration, seeking to clearly place himself on the side of the Palestinians.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II addresses the 73rd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations on September 25, 2018, in New York. (AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY)

In his address to the UN General Assembly last month, Abdullah pleaded for urgent aid for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to curb the appeal of radicalism, after the United States ended support for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

“We need to support full funding of UNRWA and other vital efforts to protect families, keep communities stable, and prepare young people for productive lives,” Abdullah said shortly after the US announced it would cut all funding to the refugee body.

Jordan is home to nearly 2.2 million Palestinians whom UNRWA has registered as refugees, about a fifth of the kingdom’s population.

Additionally, an economic crisis that struck the kingdom over the past year may also have pushed Abdullah not to renew this portion of the treaty, in an effort to appease hardliners and prevent a potential coup, veteran regional analyst Ehud Yaari told Hadashot news on Sunday night.

Jordan has struggled with a sluggish economy, including rising unemployment, in the wake of regional conflicts, including in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Earlier this year, largely peaceful demonstrations, which led to a change of prime ministers, erupted over rising prices and proposed legislation to increase income tax, in line with IMF-driven austerity measures.

Yaari stressed that the Jordanian monarchy could be vulnerable, as hardliners seek to fan the flames of such instability, and the ensuing turmoil could even potentially pose a danger for Israel, if Iran were to use it to set its sights on destabilizing Jordan.

Such an Iranian effort, he said, “would be fateful” for Israel.

“For some time, Jordan has been witnessing a popular campaign led by civil society, parliamentarians, unionists, tribal parties and others calling for the return of these regions. The public wants to reclaim the lands,” Oraib Rintawi, the director of the Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, said in a phone call with the Times of Israel.

“Jordanian public opinion is very much against any relationship with Israel. It is not only a result of the embassy shooting and Netanyahu’s provocative welcoming of the shooter, but it also has to do with what is happening in Jerusalem and the Israeli position on the Palestinian issue. So then you have the issue of Baqoura and Ghamar [the Arabic names of the territories] — which is the enshrinement and expression of Jordanian public opinion.”

Demonstrators wave a Jordanian flag in front of Jordanian police officers during a protest near the prime minister’s office in Amman, Jordan, on June 5, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Khalil MAZRAAWI)

A full-fledged diplomatic crisis?

According to Israeli officials, the king’s decision is highly significant, as it reflects a Jordanian desire to effectively reduce diplomatic ties with Israel. For the Israeli farmers affected, it spells economic disaster. “It’s a death sentence,” said Eitan Lipschitz, from Moshav Tzofar, in a Hadashot TV news interview.

Yaari, however, said that Israel knew for some time that this might happen and made no effort to try to prevent it.

The 25-year land-lease annex to the 1994 peace agreement was automatically renewable, unless either side gives a year’s notice to terminate the deal, “in which case, at the request of either party, consultations shall be entered into.”

Following the announcement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that despite the monarch’s statement, the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty is “an agreement of true peace.”

“We will enter into negotiations with Jordan to extend the existing agreement,” he said of the land-lease clauses, “but the entire agreement from a comprehensive perspective is important and dear to both countries.”

“I believe this step will not cause a crisis unless Israel tries to maintain its hand over the land,” maintained Rintawi, the Jordanian analyst. “If Netanyahu and his government return the land and show goodwill, the matter will be closed. But if he and his government start postponing, delaying and pressuring, I think we will be in front of a major crisis.”

Yossi Beilin, the former Labor minister and peace negotiator, said on Hadashot TV he was deeply troubled by the Jordanian move, but did not rule out the possibility of Netanyahu making headway in the effort to persuade the king to reconsider. Rintawi dismissed the idea, however.

“Jordan cannot backtrack on this,” said the Jordanian analyst. “This is a decision of the king, government and public. I do not believe there is any possibility to backtrack on this decision.”

Times of Israel staff, AP, and AFP contributed to this report.

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