Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi and Sudanese refugees already constitute a majority of the Jordanian population, and their numbers are growing steadily along with the pressure on the kingdom’s overextended economic resources and infrastructure.
King Abdullah II was in the United States last week for bicoastal discussions of the war next door in Syria and the threat of spillover. He came away with money and the assurances that the sympathetic but hyper-cautious Barack Obama was in his third year of pondering ways to deal with the humanitarian disaster that don’t involve putting American boots on the ground.
The administration has deployed Special Forces, Patriot missile batteries, several F-16’s and millions in humanitarian assistance while trying to keep a very low profile. Unconfirmed reports say the Pentagon is training Syrian opposition forces at a base in the Jordanian desert.
But the greatest threat to the survival of the Hashemite regime may not come from Syria but from across the Jordan River. A poll of West Bank Palestinians last summer showed they leaned toward confederation with Jordan although they prefer waiting until they attain statehood, which would put the two banks on a more equal footing.
Abdullah considers himself a stakeholder in the faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and although Washington keeps him up to date on talks and he’s in close touch with all three parties, he’d like a Jordanian chair at the table, but won’t get it.
The outcome of those talks will have nearly as much impact for Jordan as for Israel and the Palestinians.
In some ways more so if the result is an irredentist Palestine with an urge to expand to the east as the path of least resistance.
The existential threat to Jordan will be even greater if the Islamist Hamas achieves its ambition to wrest control to the West Bank from its bitter rival, the secular Fatah.
A Hamas-led Palestine could be expected to make alliance with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhoods’ Islamic Action Front (IAF), an increasingly powerful player in the kingdom. Both advocate the annihilation of Israel, not negotiations, and the adoption of Sharia law. Abdullah is certain the Egyptian Brotherhood, which spawned IAF and Hamas, has been fomenting unrest in Jordan and wants to see him gone, Jeffrey Goldberg reported in The Atlantic.
Nonetheless, Abdullah remains a strong advocate of the two-state solution and worries that time may be running out, leaving Israel with a choice of apartheid or one-state democracy if it can’t reach an agreement soon with the Palestinians.
A major issue of contention in the peace talks is Israel’s demand for a security presence in the Jordan Valley. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected that and suggested a NATO force. Hamas has declared it would treat any troops as an occupation force no different from Israel, meaning targeted for attack. Jordan has said it would not deploy its army along its 338 km. frontier with Israel and the West Bank to protect Israel’s border, but that is what it already does when it protects its own, and it will have to double the effort if the Israeli army is withdrawn and replaced by others less reliable.
Forces in the Jordan Valley, whatever the source, will be more essential to protecting Jordan than Israel. Jordan is weaker, more vulnerable to intrusions and the expansionist ambitions of a landlocked Palestine.
Abdullah is the most pro-American ruler in the Arab world and an “indispensable” ally for the United States, Israel and the gulf Arabs, Goldberg wrote, and “Israel, in some ways, is Jordan’s most important ally.”
In 1970’s Black September, Israel played a critical role in thwarting Yasser Arafat’s attempt to overthrow King Hussein and a Syrian invasion in support of that coup plot.
Early in this decade’s “Arab awakening,” “King Abdullah II was one of the first Arab rulers to understand the explosive nature of the unrest in the Middle East and one of the first to introduce political reforms,” according to Oded Eran, the former Israeli ambassador to Jordan. “Like others in the Middle East, the king is probably asking himself whether Washington can be expected to provide assistance beyond money and military hardware.”
The king also fears the IAF may, in the name of Islam, try to “hijack” the political reforms he has instituted in the wake of the Arab awakening, Eran wrote in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.
Abdullah’s pace of reform may be slow, but it sends a message to Jordanian people, said Dan Schueftan, a visiting professor at Georgetown University: “The enormous suffering and chaos next door is because they rebelled against the regime; we have started with reform, we will provide change, we hear you; you may not get everything you want but you’ve been spared the tragedy and suffering.”
In light of the events in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Palestinian areas, and the ascendancy of fundamentalist regimes in the region, Eran said “Israel would do well to aid Jordan economically as much as possible.”
Jordan’s greatest fear is that the estimated 600,000 Syrians, 200,000 Iraqis and thousands of Sudanese won’t want to go home when the situations in their countries settle. In addition between half and twothirds of its 7.5 million population is Palestinian, including Abdullah’s wife, Queen Rania.
Unlike other Arab countries, Jordan gives Palestinian refugees – the largest number in any Arab country – full citizenship, although not full equality with Jordanians. Most Jordanians want to retain that inequality, and preferably to return to the other side of the river, but that is highly unlikely.
Many Hashemites, Beduin, Islamists, nationalists and tribal leaders express growing concern that the Palestinian refuges and their descendants will remain permanently, becoming a fifth column for a Palestinian state on the West Bank that will try to expand to the East Bank.
They want Palestinians to have their own state on the West Bank and leave the East Bank to Jordanians.
Unlike many Palestinians and Israeli nationalists and settlers, they reject any suggestion that Jordan is Palestine.