InterviewMonarchy receives $1.5 billion in annual aid from Congress

Jordan in ‘balancing act’ between Palestinian majority and key allies US, Israel

Caught between Hamas-supporting population and strategic partnerships with US and Israel, Jordanian King Abdullah to try to bring weight to bear this week in DC, says expert

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

US President Joe Biden arrives with Jordan's King Abdullah II to speak in the Cross Hall of the White House, February 12, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
US President Joe Biden arrives with Jordan's King Abdullah II to speak in the Cross Hall of the White House, February 12, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

On Sunday, Jordan’s official news agency Al Mamlaka published a video filmed inside a Jordanian Air Force aircraft that was dropping medical supplies to field hospitals inside the Gaza Strip. On board the flight was a special guest: King Abdullah, decked in military gear.

The airdrop of humanitarian aid to Gazans, while an overt publicity stunt, could work to bolster the image of the monarch among his citizens, said Jordan researcher Aaron Magid. A former Amman-based journalist, today Magid hosts the podcast “On Jordan,” which discusses current affairs in the Hashemite kingdom.

“About 50 to 60 percent of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian descent, and many still have family ties to people in the West Bank or Gaza, so the issue is very emotional for many Jordanians,” Magid said. “They’re constantly watching Al Jazeera or other TV news channels showing the high casualty toll in Gaza, and they’re deeply impacted by that.”

While the king’s participation largely appealed to domestic audiences, it also signaled Amman’s commitment to alleviating the plight of the Gazan civilian population, at the same time as diplomatic ties with the US and the Jewish state are preserved.

“On the one hand, Jordan genuinely wants the war to end, but on the other hand, it has a strategic partnership with the United States, and it knows that if it were to cut off ties with Israel completely, it would put its $1.5 billion in annual aid from Congress at risk,” Magid explained. “Jordan is constantly playing a balancing act.”

The kingdom, an oasis of stability in a tumultuous region, is a key US ally, and will leverage that position to its advantage, Magid said. (The researcher is the brother of Times of Israel US bureau chief Jacob Magid.)

“King Abdullah this week will be the first Arab leader to meet with President Biden at the White House since the war began. The king is using his strong connections with the United States and with leaders in Western Europe to try to pressure Israel to achieve a ceasefire,” he said.

At the same time, the monarchy, while sympathetic to the plight of the Gazans, is no stalwart friend of Hamas. The Islamist terror group and its umbrella organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, were a thorn in the side of the kingdom.

Four Hamas leaders were booted from the country in 1999, including top official Khaled Mashal. After surviving an assassination attempt by the Mossad in Amman two years prior, he was ousted to Syria.

The king’s decision to expel Hamas came in part at the request of the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), who feared that the terrorist group’s activities would jeopardize ongoing peace negotiations between the PA and Israel in the framework of the Oslo agreements.

That hostility explains why Jordan has not acted as a mediator in negotiations between Israel and Hamas, unlike Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza, and Qatar, which sponsors the terror group and hosts its leaders.

Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal at a rally in Hamas’s honor in Cape Town, South Africa, October 21, 2015. (AFP/Rodger Bosch/File)

The princess pilot

As part of its humanitarian effort, Amman has thus far conducted 11 airdrops on Gaza to deliver medical aid to several field hospitals it runs. Abdullah’s second daughter Princess Salma — an air force pilot — participated in a similar operation in December.

Anti-Israeli sentiment in the kingdom has been running high since October 7.

“There have been large rallies in Amman criticizing Israel, with some protesters carrying placards with the picture of [Hamas military spokesman] Abu Obeida calling for Hamas to bring suicide bombers to Tel Aviv,” said Magid.

A poll conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman in late November found that two-thirds of Jordanians (66%) supported Hamas’s onslaught against Israel on October 7.

In January, a restaurant south of the city of Kerak near the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea changed its name to “October 7,” in an apparent homage to Hamas’s massacre. It was forced to rename itself again a few days later following political pressure.

Demonstrators chant slogans near the Israeli embassy in Amman on October 20, 2023. (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

In addition, the kingdom’s economy has been heavily impacted by the ongoing conflict. The Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping routes have targeted maritime trade, preventing many vessels from reaching Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba.

But most importantly, Amman has experienced a significant drop in tourism, after witnessing a long-awaited post-COVID rebound at the beginning of 2023, because of its proximity to Israel – even though the kingdom has not been affected by the fighting and is “totally safe,” according to Magid.

Aaron Magid, Jordan expert and former Amman-based journalist. (2018, courtesy)

In the diplomatic arena, the Hashemite Kingdom has been highly vocal in its opposition to Israel’s offensive in Gaza, recalling its ambassador in Tel Aviv a few weeks into the war. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has stated that the IDF operation in Gaza meets the “legal definition of genocide,” and Amman has supported South Africa in the genocide case at the ICJ in The Hague, with Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh announcing that Jordan would present evidence to the court.

King Abdullah himself, however, has been more circumspect in his public statements. In contrast to most parliamentary monarchies, the Crown in Jordan does not have a merely ceremonial function, with the king having significant influence over the affairs of the country.

“While he has repeatedly called to end the war, the Jordanian monarch hasn’t used especially harsh rhetoric, such as explicitly accusing Israel of carrying out a genocide in Gaza, like lower level Jordanian government officials have used,” Magid said.

On a practical level, Amman has taken some far-reaching steps to signal its frustration with Israel, going as far as canceling a water-for-energy deal that was supposed to be ratified between the two countries in October.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II addresses a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (not in image) after a meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on October 17, 2023. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

It has, however, stopped short of adopting more radical measures.

“On the most notable level, they didn’t freeze the peace treaty,” Magid noted, referencing the agreement signed with Israel in 1994 that established bilateral ties. “And they didn’t cancel a gas deal involving billions of dollars that Jordan pays to Israel.”

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