Although “Israel is on the same side as the Arab states against Iran,” no broader progress in relations with the Arab world is likely without improvement on the Palestinian track, the Jordanian director of one of the few think tanks in the Arab world focusing on Israel told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
The Iranian nuclear program and the Arab uprisings triggered a change in Arab attitudes toward Israel for the better, said Dr. Abdullah Sawalha, the director of the Amman-based Center for Israel Studies.
“During the Arab Spring,” Arabs focused on domestic issues, he asserted, adding that “in the past, Arabs hung all their problems on Israel, but now they discovered it is not the main issue.”
While it is still too early for Israeli students to take part in large scale exchange programs in Jordan, he said, “when a Palestinian state is established on the 1967 borders – including land swaps and a capital in east Jerusalem,” relations will improve.
Sawalha claimed that his think tank is the first in the Arab world to focus on Israel and that he collaborates with people in Israel and Cairo, where much of the Hebrew to Arabic translation is done. He said the Hebrew University program in Cairo is very strong.
The Center for Israel Studies, founded in 2014, is an independent NGO dedicated to studying Israel’s politics, society, economy and military, according to its website.
The center seeks to expand “understanding of Israel in all Arab states,” it said.
The think tank director took part in the 13th Ambassadors’ Forum at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan last week that dealt with the Israeli-Arab issue.
Asked about the danger Islamic State poses to Jordan, Sawalha responded that despite the organization’s presence near the kingdom’s frontiers with Iraq and Syria, “there is no fear since our security forces are very strong. We fully control our borders.”
Questioned about the threat of terrorist attacks in Jordan, he replied, “No country in the world can have 100 percent security,” adding that Jordanian citizens cooperate with the security forces to prevent violence.
“Jordanians are united behind King Abdullah,” he said.
Sawalha sounded a refrain often heard from Israeli officials, that despite the chaos in the region, Jordan remains stable and has a good education system and so on. This, despite the severe refugee problem caused by the wars in Syria and Iraq, he said.
According to the UN refugee agency, there are more than a million refugees in Jordan.
Sawalha puts the number at over 1.4 million and complains that the international community is not doing enough to help.
He pointed out that Syrian refugees are taking jobs from Jordanians and are working for half the salary. They are straining Jordan’s social welfare services, schools and other institutions.
And within this context, he said that the new project, currently under way with Israel, to bring Jordanian day workers to work in hotels in Eilat, is helping alleviate social pressures, as the official unemployment rate is around 12 percent.
The borders with Iraq and Syria are virtually closed to trade, he noted.
Under the plan, which began in the past month, there are currently 150 Jordanian workers working in Eilat, and by the end of the month, there will be 500. The government target is to eventually reach 1,500 Jordanian workers in the Red Sea city.
The Jordanian workers stay for eight hours and then return home to their country at the end of each workday.
Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara has been pushing a number of initiatives to improve relations with Jordan.
He told the Post last month that talks were under way to open a new border crossing with Jordan near the Dead Sea in order to ease tourist travel and bring in more workers from the kingdom to replace illegal migrants from Africa.
Asked about some of the other plans such as the proposal for a free trade zone, Sawalha said the problem is that potential projects between the two countries, such as in the gas, water and agricultural sectors, are stuck as long as the politics is stuck on the Palestinian issue.
The tensions on the Temple Mount and the lack of progress in the peace process track with the Palestinians are holding up advancement in relations, continued Sawalha.
Asked about relations between Jordan and Israeli Arabs, he said they were very good and that many study in Jordanian universities and travel through the country on their pilgrimages to Mecca.