A welcome turning point in Israel–Jordan relations

A welcome turning point in Israel–Jordan relations

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The election of a new government in Israel has brought a key strategic change in the country’s relations with Jordan, which in recent years have suffered severe setbacks.

Much of this deterioration was due to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bellicose and short-sighted policies when it came to the needs and vulnerabilities of the Hashemite kingdom east of the border. Hence, a recent meeting, held in secrecy, between the new Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and Jordan’s King Abdullah — the first such summit after years of strained ties — is seen as a turning point in their relationship.

In another sign of the rapprochement, the Jordanian king called to congratulate the newly elected president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, with the two heads of state agreeing on the need to advance cooperation between their countries. Two high-level meetings so close together seem to indicate that relations are on an upward trajectory.

Even before Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement in 1994, and despite being involved in two major wars in 1948 and 1967, they were the most reluctant of enemies and cooperated behind the scenes on security matters. For Israel, the survival of Hashemite rule in Jordan is a pillar of security that safeguards its eastern borders.

Yet, despite their common interests, there are obvious pitfalls that must be handled with care. First and foremost is the unresolved Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the status of Jerusalem. Officially, there are about 3 million Palestinians in Jordan, 2.2 million of them registered with UNWRA, the UN refugee agency. However, the numbers are probably even higher, constituting a substantial minority in Jordan, with strong ties to their brethren in the territories occupied by Israel. Ultimately, what happens in the West Bank and Gaza is bound to affect Israeli–Jordanian relations, and beyond the historical and political ties between Jordan and Jerusalem, unrest in the holy places could have far-reaching implications for the stability of the Hashemite kingdom.

The 1994 peace treaty was a natural development of the discreet cooperation between the two countries. The Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO enabled Jordan and Israel to formalize and normalize their relations, with Jordan formally relinquishing any claim to the West Bank, and leaving negotiations over its future to the Israelis and the Palestinians.

For Israel, a peaceful border with Jordan is an important asset in a strategic environment where instability and conflict are common. Upheavals in Iraq and Syria, as well as constant instability in Lebanon, have all been detrimental to Jordan’s political, social and economic fabric, but none of this has spilled over into Israel.

Nevertheless the decision-makers in Israel, especially during the Netanyahu years, have taken relations with Jordan for granted, assuming in light of its reliance on support from the US, and its demographic and economic fragility, that Amman does not have the luxury of defying Israel. To an extent the menu for change for Jordan’s royal rulers is limited. The country is home not only to Palestinian refugees, but also an estimated 1.3 million exiled Syrians. Meanwhile, limited natural resources, a struggling economy, a tourism sector hit hard by the pandemic and the recently exposed rift in the royal family dictate policies of constant crisis management and survival rather than substantial leaps forward.

The election of a new government in Israel has brought a key strategic change in the country’s relations with Jordan, which in recent years have suffered severe setbacks.

Yossi Mekelberg

Hence, the benefits from the peace agreement in the form of cross-border business ties that employ thousands of Jordanians, working jointly on supplies of water and Israeli natural gas in addition to security cooperation and intelligence, are significant for the kingdom’s stability and well-being.

Despite their mutual interests, Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009 signalled the beginning of an erosion in ties between Israel and Jordan. In his arrogance, the former Israeli leader perceived the asymmetrical power relations with Amman as a license to dictate the nature of the relationship, ignoring risks to Jordan’s stability and taking a disrespectful attitude, which included tacit support for the suggestion in right-wing circles that Jordan should become the future Palestinian state.

This impudent approach manifested itself in a string of events, including Israel’s decision to reverse its commitment in a signed agreement with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to lay 180 km of pipeline connecting the Red Sea and Dead Sea. Israel’s reneging on the deal, especially with Jordan suffering badly from water scarcity, meant Amman lost trust in its neighbor’s true intentions.

Then, in 2017, an Israeli security guard killed two Jordanians, one an innocent landlord, while responding to a terrorist attack at the Israeli Embassy in Jordan’s capital. Seeing Netanyahu give the security guard a hero’s welcome after Jordan extradited him despite public outcry irritated the palace to such an extent that it responded by releasing his name and personal information in breach of diplomatic protocol. Personal relations between the two leaders never recovered.

But it is the Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian triangle that remains a constant pressure point in Israeli–Jordanian relations. Israel’s expansion of its illegal settlements in the West Bank, and the constant threat of parts of it being annexed (a threat that was removed by the Abraham Accords), in addition to unilateral acts in East Jerusalem, ratcheted up the tension between the two countries to the point that sources in Amman were briefing on the possibility of Jordan tearing up the peace agreement.

There is little doubt that King Abdullah has been happy to see the back of Netanyahu, but he is still figuring out how to deal with a government led by a right-wing prime minister whose main power base is the settlers.

The meeting between Bennett and Jordan’s ruler was a positive first sign, as was Israel’s subsequent consent for Jordan to buy an additional 50 million cubic meters of water from Israel and increase the value of its exports to the West Bank from $160 million to $700 million a year. Tensions between the two countries, considering the complex political environments in which both operate, are inevitable, yet there is now a better chance of dealing with these in a more constructive manner, for each side’s mutual benefit.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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