Gaza war presents existential challenges for Jordan
From the onset of the Israeli war on Gaza, which is now in its seventh week, Jordan has taken an exceptionally extreme stand in denouncing the onslaught. King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi have openly accused Israel of committing multiple war crimes and called on the West to cease choosing how and when to apply international law.
As the war intensified, Jordan doubled down and raised the ante, declaring that it would not sign a crucial water-for-energy deal with Israel and even reminding Tel Aviv that the 29-year-old peace treaty between the two countries is just a piece of paper that can be set aside to collect dust.
Not only has the king been vociferous in his condemnation of the war, warning it could get out of control and spiral into a regional showdown, but even Queen Rania, who has no political role, has been equally vocal in pointing to the catastrophic humanitarian calamity endured by civilians in Gaza, especially children. King Abdullah has visited a number of European capitals, urging leaders to back an immediate ceasefire. He has also warned that any forced displacement of Gazans would be considered a red line for Jordan.
Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh went as far as saying that the forced displacement of Palestinians would be tantamount to a declaration of war. Such language was never used before, even though the ties between the two countries have gone from bad to worse over the last decade, especially under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Jordan this month recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv and allowed tens of thousands of Jordanians to protest openly, all across the country, not only against Israel but also against the US, which the vast majority here sees as complicit in the war.
The perception in Amman is that Israel is out to change the dynamics of the Israel-Palestine conflict
Aside from the embattled Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank, Jordan stands to suffer the most in the final outcome of the war. The perception in Amman is that Israel is not out to destroy Hamas in retaliation for its Oct. 7 attack, but to change the dynamics of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
It is not clear how far Israel will go in its current aggression and when it will be forced to stop. The belief in Amman is that the Biden administration is too weak and politically vulnerable to order Netanyahu and his war Cabinet to stop the war. Meanwhile, the UK and the rest of Europe have no real leverage on Israel.
Israel’s war on Gaza, which Amman does not believe will destroy Hamas, will achieve one of the following, or even both. One: create a buffer zone in northern Gaza — an effective wasteland where its former residents will never return. This has already been achieved through the scorched-earth policy that Israel has applied in most of Gaza City and the adjacent refugee camps. Two: having destroyed the north, Israel will turn its attention to the south, where more than 1.4 million Gazans have taken refuge. It can either leave them there or start another bombing campaign to force them to flee to Sinai. Even if it does nothing, while maintaining control of how little aid is allowed to enter through the Rafah crossing, the humanitarian situation will deteriorate in such a way that millions will eventually be forced to head toward Egypt.
Regardless of how Cairo feels about this, it cannot deal with a scenario where tens of thousands of helpless Gazans try to cross the border in search of safety and aid. So far, the West’s inability to influence Netanyahu and his war Cabinet is making such a scenario a possibility as winter sets in. UN relief agencies describe the situation in southern Gaza as disastrous, yet only a few relief trucks are allowed to pass through the Rafah crossing on a daily basis.
Such a scenario raises all sorts of red flags for Jordan. When a few Jewish ultranationalist Zionists talked about Jordan being an “alternative Palestinian homeland,” few took them seriously. Egypt had just signed a peace treaty with Israel and, a decade and a half later, both the Palestine Liberation Organization and Jordan reached separate peace agreements with Tel Aviv. The two-state solution had become the acceptable international formula to end decades of conflict.
Western leaders do not seem to have the tools, or the will, to challenge Netanyahu at this time
But over the years since, the extremists in Israel have made a slow move from the periphery of Israeli politics to the center. Illegal Jewish settlements have increased tenfold. The peace process was derailed and Netanyahu did everything he could to weaken and sideline the Palestinian Authority, while propping up Hamas, which by now was in control of Gaza.
While the Oct. 7 Hamas attack was a watershed moment, it came at a point when Netanyahu’s far-right government was doing its best to test Jordan’s vulnerable peace treaty, especially where the future of the West Bank and East Jerusalem was concerned.
Now, Jordan finds itself in a difficult position. If Israel does carry out a plan to displace Palestinians in Gaza, then a precedent would have been set. What would be next? The West Bank is already witnessing daily Israeli raids against refugee camps in Jenin, Nablus and elsewhere. Area C, which makes up 60 percent of the West Bank and where the PA has no say or control, is being cleared of its last few Palestinian communities. Armed settlers are on the rampage. The Israeli military is destroying the infrastructure of Palestinian towns and camps.
Jordan cannot allow the forced displacement of Palestinians from the West Bank. That presents a clear and direct threat to its existence. It is already hosting the largest number of Palestinian refugees.
Under Netanyahu, Israel has pushed to cement the identity of the state as an exclusive Jewish homeland, even when such a move brought in the label of apartheid, both inside the 1948 borders and beyond. But Israel faces a demographic and existential challenge. Whether it has happened already or it will come in a few years’ time, non-Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will outnumber the Jews. Israel can build settlements and kill Palestinians, but it is bound to lose the demographic war. Thus, the ultimate solution, as desired by the far right, is forced transfer.
Jordan has come to acknowledge such a reality and that it stands to pay for it, alongside Egypt. A forced transfer scenario must be considered, since the US has no real leverage to apply to Netanyahu. This explains Jordan’s willingness to put its peace treaty with Israel on the line. But this comes after Jordan has become almost dependent on Israel for water and natural gas. It would not be easy to find alternatives.
No one really knows how far King Abdullah will go in challenging Israel’s war in Gaza and in displeasing his US and European allies. From what has come out so far, the king is willing to go as far as possible to derail Israel’s sinister plans in Gaza and beyond.
Jordan is betting on the possibility that Israel will not be allowed to pursue the current bloodbath in Gaza much longer. But that is a risk. Western leaders do not seem to have the tools, or the will, to challenge Netanyahu at this time. Biden is running for reelection and his Republican opponents are racing to pledge blind support for Israel’s war in Gaza.
For Jordan, all options look difficult. It may go as far as abrogating or suspending its peace treaty with Israel, but that will come at a hefty cost, its strategic ties with the US notwithstanding. At the same time, it cannot allow a Gaza scenario to be repeated in the West Bank. It is a dangerous tightrope walk for Jordan from now on.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator in Amman. X: @plato010