Israeli-Jordanian peace deal is strong – despite Amman’s ingratitude

By refusing to renew peace deal annex allowing the Jewish state to lease 2 parcels of land, King Abdullah is largely attempting to stave off internal political pressure

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Jordan's King Abdullah II, during the former's surprise visit to Amman on January 16, 2014. (AP/Yousef Allan/Jordanian Royal Palace/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Jordan's King Abdullah II, during the former's surprise visit to Amman on January 16, 2014. (AP/Yousef Allan/Jordanian Royal Palace/File)

While the headlines on Jordan’s decision not to renew annexes to the peace treaty leasing border land to the Jewish state were dramatic, the step isn’t expected to destabilize the Hashemite Kingdom’s ties with Jerusalem.

King Abdullah’s announcement Sunday that Amman had decided to end the lease didn’t surprise many in Jerusalem. Pressure from the Jordanian public to make the move was evident — including from such bodies as the country’s bar association and most parliament members.

Several months ago, diplomat Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister who has ties with the royal family, published an article in local media saying it was important to return the lands to Jordanian hands.

Muasher, Jordan’s first ambassador to Israel after the 1994 treaty was signed, and other high-ranking officials would not publish such articles unless they mean to indicate a trend within the king’s inner circles. While the writing may not have been on the wall, it was definitely in the newspaper.

At this stage, the move seems to be aimed at strengthening the royal family’s public status, particularly among opponents of normalization with Israel.

Yarmouk Bridge, Naharayim Isle of Peace (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Yarmouk Bridge, Naharayim Isle of Peace (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The decision means Jordan will retake control of two areas leased to Israel for 25 years for agricultural use under the 1994 peace agreement — one at Naharayim in the north and another at the Tzofar area in the southern Arava desert. The leases expire next year and can be canceled with a year’s notice.

The areas are currently Israeli enclaves in areas under Jordanian sovereignty, and since the peace treaty was signed Israelis have been able to easily enter and exit them and farm agricultural land. But even after the king’s announcement, both sides have a year to discuss the decision before its implementation.

Jordan has been dealing in recent years with worrying Islamization that greatly concerns Amman. Public opinion has accordingly been turning more and more anti-Israeli and belligerent, due, among other reasons, to stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Occasionally, Islamist terror cells emerge, attacking Jordanian security forces and killing them in numbers unseen before. Authorities fear those attacks are gaining public support.

It also is noteworthy that some Jordanians joined the Islamic State terror group in recent years, and a few years before that, the terror attacks of Islamic State’s Jordanian “mentor,” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, inspired the creation of the jihadist organization.

Jordanian protesters shout slogans and raise a national flag during a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s office in the capital Amman early June 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

Jordan’s second problem in recent years has been the demographic and economic shift it is undergoing. The number of refugees who fled from Syria and Iraq to the kingdom is estimated at 1.5 million people out of Jordan’s total of almost 10 million. Similarly, much of its original population are Palestinians. The Syrians aren’t expected to return to their homes anytime soon due to the war-ravaged nation’s current condition.

Abdullah’s declaration, the royal family hopes, could at least temporarily divert public opinion from the country’s big problems, in both security and the economy. Those include widespread recent protests against the king and against then-prime minister Hani Mulki for imposing new taxes — protests that led to Mulki’s resignation in June.

Amman hopes the new announcement will rebrand Abdullah as a monarch who does not hesitate to confront Israel when a distinct Jordanian interest is on the line.

And indeed, Jordanian media outlets feted the announcement on Monday, with the Al-Ghad daily’s headline trumpeting, “The decision is a victory for Jordan.”

“The Hashemite leadership,” the report said, “always puts the defense of Jordanian interests, land and citizens, at the top of its list of priorities, despite the difficulties rooted in regional circumstances surrounding Jordan.”

For now, Jerusalem’s reaction has been relatively mild. Israel understands the delicate situation, and only after a year of negotiations will we know the final outcome.

Still, the king’s statement is an instance of Jordanian ingratitude. Israel greatly helps the royal family diplomatically, and financial ties aren’t bad either. When it comes to security, the cooperation between the countries can be described as between “excellent” and “exceptional” — a relationship that is carefully kept below the radar.

Meanwhile, Jordan, typically, is investing significant efforts in downplaying the strength of those ties, while issuing dramatic statements such as Sunday’s.

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