Jordan said Thursday that its decision to end a pair of land leases with Israel would not affect the decades-old peace agreement between the countries, seeking to calm fears in Jerusalem that ties could be downgraded.
King Abdullah II announced Sunday that Amman would not renew an agreement to lease two parcels of land on the border to Israel for agriculture use, which it has done for the past 24 years as part of an annex of the historic peace treaty between the nations signed in 1994.
Officials in Jerusalem had expressed fears that the move signaled Jordan’s desire to effectively reduce diplomatic ties with Israel, and many saw it as a reflection of intense domestic pressure from a public that still largely views Israel as an enemy.
Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told Reuters on Thursday that Amman had never planned to extend the land leases indefinitely.
“That is why there was a time cap on it … We acted within the provisions of the peace treaty. This is an indication of our commitment to the peace treaty. There has never been a question of our solid commitment to the treaty,” Safadi said.
Under the annex of the peace agreement, the countries recognized Jordan sovereignty over the parcels — at Naharayim south of the Lake Galilee and Tzofar south of the Dead Sea — but inserted leases to allow Israeli farmers working the land to continue to access it.
With the announcement, the sides now have a year to negotiate the end of the lease. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had indicated he would lobby for Amman to reverse the decision, Safadi said earlier this week that the only item on the table was the mechanism for canceling the agreement.
“We will fulfill our legal commitments in a manner that recognize whatever rights there are for Israel, particularly the property rights. We will respect these rights in accordance with Jordanian laws that respects private property of non-Jordanians,” Safadi told Reuters.
Israel’s relations with Jordan are limited largely to behind-the-scenes security ties and some environmental cooperation. The leases, one of which is next to a so-called Isle of Peace that citizens of both countries can visit without a visa, were seen as a symbolic exhibit of the peace between the countries.
Netanyahu said following Jordan’s announcement that the “accord as a whole is an important thing,” and called the peace deals with Jordan and Egypt “anchors of regional stability.”
Abdullah did not give a reason for his decision, but he has faced escalating domestic pressure to end the lease and return the territories to full Jordanian control. Last week, demonstrators demanding an end to Israeli ownership of the lands marched in Jordan’s capital of Amman last week.
Safadi told Reuters that Amman had been considering the move for some time before the Sunday announcement.
Tensions between Israel and Jordan have mounted in recent months over such issues as the contested status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, stalled Mideast peace talks, and last year’s shooting of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli embassy guard in Amman, which ignited a diplomatic crisis.
Relations thawed after Israel replaced its ambassador to Amman and Netanyahu met with Abdullah last summer to stress the importance of economic and security cooperation between the two countries.