Jordan nixing of land leases could sow distrust, but some see hope for reversal

Jordan nixing of land leases could sow distrust, but some see hope for reversal

Deputy minister says kingdom’s decision to reclaim plots in Naharayim and Tzofar goes against spirit of peace deal, though Jerusalem may have leverage to block it

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US president Bill Clinton, background, applauds as soldiers from the Jordanian army, left, and the Israeli army move together in a show of goodwill at the conclusion of the Israel/Jordan peace treaty signing ceremony at the Wadi Araba border crossing near Eilat in Israel on October 26, 1994. (AP/Marcy Nighswander)
US president Bill Clinton, background, applauds as soldiers from the Jordanian army, left, and the Israeli army move together in a show of goodwill at the conclusion of the Israel/Jordan peace treaty signing ceremony at the Wadi Araba border crossing near Eilat in Israel on October 26, 1994. (AP/Marcy Nighswander)

Amman’s announcement Sunday that it would not renew a 25-year lease agreement with Israel on two enclaves in Jordanian territory is “violating the spirit” of the peace agreement forged between the countries, an Israeli lawmaker said Monday, amid hopes that the two countries would still be able to work out an agreement and keep ties intact.

Analysts said Monday that Israel has leverage and could still convince Amman to reverse course, but some warned that a failure to do so could cast a pall over future agreements Jerusalem may seek to sign with others in the region.

On Sunday, Jordan’s King Abdullah said he intends to terminate an annex of the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty that allowed Israelis access to two small agricultural areas.

The move came after intense domestic pressure in Jordan over the issue, and sent a shiver through the 24-year-old peace pact. While analysts say the countries’ ties remain intact and should not be deeply affected, some fear the move may still impact relations between Jerusalem and Amman.

“While not violating the peace agreement, the Jordanian king’s decision is violating the spirit of the peace agreement,” Deputy Minister Michael Oren (Kulanu) told The Times of Israel Monday. “It’s a blow not only to Jordan’s credibility as a serious player in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but it also hurts those of us inside the political echelon who are supportive of renewing this process.”

Deputy Minister Michael Oren at the Knesset, June 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel)

Oren also suggested Jordan’s move may diminish the Israeli public’s trust in a possible agreement with the Palestinians.

There is no argument that Naharayim, located in Israel’s north, and Tzofar, in the southern Arava desert, are in Jordanian territory. But since Israelis had been working there for decades, the 1994 peace treaty stipulated that they could continue to access the land for 25 years, recognizing Jordanian sovereignty but also “Israeli private land ownership rights and property interests.”

This arrangement would have been renewed automatically next year, if it were not for Jordan’s announcement that it wants to terminate the annex. According to the peace treaty, Israel and Jordan will now enter “consultations” about the matter.

The border crossing near Naharayim where seven girls were murdered in 1997 by a Jordanian soldier while visiting a nearby power station (Shay Levy/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he would negotiate with Jordan regarding the two territories, where some 35 families derive their main livelihood.

Oren said he was also “saddened” by Jordan wanting to reclaim Naharayim, due to its “strong Zionist historical resonance and painful legacy.”

He was referring to the hydroelectric power station that Zionist leader Pinhas Rutenberg built there in the early 1930s, and the murder of seven Israeli schoolgirls at the hand of Jordanian soldier Ahmad Musa Mustafa Daqamseh in 1997. At the time, Jordan’s then-ruler king Hussein paid moving visits to the families of the victims, Oren said.

Jordan’s King Hussein touches Yaffa Shukrun, bending down to kiss the wounded school teacher who is recuperating in a Jerusalem hospital Sunday March 16 1997. (AP/Nati Shohat/Flash 90/POOL)

“Jordan now insisting to rule over an area where such a cold-blooded murder occurred would send a wrong signal about the value of our peace agreement,” Oren said.

“I hope that there still can be a compromise worked out,” he added.

Much like the release of Daqamseh from Jordanian prison in 2017, the move by Jordan’s king to demand the territory back came following heavy domestic pressure and not necessarily any nadir in ties with Jerusalem. While Israel and Amman maintain positive security ties, the kingdom’s relationship with Israel is still considered a third rail in Jordanian politics outside the palace.

Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel and now a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said Jerusalem may be able to get Amman to reconsider, since the king is simply “managing the pressures he’s under.”

A border gate is closed on a bridge leading from Israel to Jordan, in the Jordan valley area called Baqura, or Naharayim, Jordanian territory that was leased to Israel under the 1994 peace agreement between the two countries, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

He said Israelis would also not look to trash the whole peace treaty over the cancellation of the lease, but could view future deals with skepticism.

“My guess is that the significant majority of Israelis sees the peace treaty with Jordan as something from which Israel has benefited significantly and would not want to see it undermined or would not be less supportive of the treaty itself because of this decision by the Jordanians,” he said.

Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro attends at a farewell session at the Knesset ahead of his departure from the role on January 17, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“But it may lessen people’s enthusiasm for these kind of agreements. That doesn’t mean that the strategic benefit isn’t still very much there and very much worth preserving.”

Dore Gold, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, said continued good bilateral cooperation was “vital” for both Israel and Jordan.

“If the understandings with Jordan over a lease option from 1994 fall apart, then it casts a shadow on other future agreements we might want to make in the region,” he said.

Several analysts said that while the king’s decision was likely the result of heavy lobbying by opponents of the peace agreement with Israel, it was still possible for Israel to maintain its access to Naharayim and Tzofar.

“I think that the negotiations between the two sides may result in a different situation whereby the two governments may agree to continue, to extend the validity of this annex concerning to these two pieces of land between them,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and former Israeli ambassador to Jordan.

“We have leverage. There are so many interests that we have with Jordan,” said Robbie Sabel, a former legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry who was involved in the Israeli-Jordanian peace negotiations.

Water and security are just two of the main areas where Jerusalem and Amman cooperate very closely, he noted.

“What we want to do is solve this issue quietly. We’re not going to threaten Jordan; that would not be in our interest. It is in Israel’s interest to have a secure and stable Jordan. Jordan is a strategic ally, though it’s not an ally based on friendship.”

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

Alan Baker, another former Foreign Ministry legal adviser who played an important role in drafting the 1994 peace treaty, said there was fifty-fifty chance that Israel could get Jordan to rethink its decision to terminate the annex about Naharayim and Tzofar.

While the Hashemite kingdom was perfectly in its right to reclaim these areas, Israel has “sovereign prerogatives of our own that Jordanians enjoy,” such as the right to fly over Israeli airspace.

“This is not a one-way street,” he said. “There are two sides. The Jordanian government, public and security establishment all enjoy various aspects of the peaceful relationship, and they want to continue to enjoy it and even enhance it. Hence, there’s plenty of room to discuss the nature of the bilateral relationship.”

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