On Sunday night, Al Jazeera television interviewed Hamza Khader, a young political activist, at a cafe in Amman.
Khader, who is working to muster public opposition to last week’s Jordanian-Israeli gas deal, predicted a wide response to the campaign.
Perhaps more striking than what Khader said was the fact that the cafe was dark, and he spoke by candlelight. This was not a power outage or a romantic touch, but rather part and parcel of the campaign’s protest effort, the latest sign of the simmering unease over the 22-year old peace treaty with Israel.
Supporters of the campaign throughout Jordan turned their lights out from 9:00 to 10:00 pm on Sunday to signal their rejection of the $10 billion gas deal, and promised further visible protest efforts.
The lights-out action came on the heels of a protest march Friday in downtown Amman that attracted an estimated 2,500 demonstrators, making it one of the largest protests in Jordan in recent years. They chanted, “the people want the agreement overturned,” and held up signs with slogans such as, “the gas of the enemy is occupation,” “we reject normalization” and “no to the shameful agreement.”
Shareholders in Israel’s Leviathan offshore gas field signed a $10b. deal with Jordan’s National Electric Power Company on September 26 to supply Jordan with natural gas for 15 years. In keeping with the agreement, approximately 45 billion cubic meters of gas are to be provided to Jordan from the gas field in the Mediterranean beginning in 2019. The agreement makes Israel Jordan’s largest supplier of natural gas.
For Israel, this deal signifies the cementing of the peace agreement, and is an example for other countries. But at a time when the Netanyahu government has stressed a perceived shift in the attitudes of Sunni Arab states towards Israel, based on shared enmity for Iran, the strident opposition the deal is encountering brings up the issue that, in terms of public opinion in the Arab world, anti-Israel sentiment and identification with the Palestinians remains strong.
National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz hailed the gas deal as “an important milestone in strengthening relations and in strategic cooperation between Israel and Jordan and the entire region.”
But Israel’s relations are only with the regime, not with the wider public, and the monarchy must exert great efforts to navigate them successfully.
Jordan’s dispatch of a relatively low-level delegation to attend Shimon Peres’s funeral on Friday appeared to take into account the divide between official government and public opinion regarding Israel.
Reflecting popular opposition, the lower house of the Jordanian Parliament voted overwhelmingly in a non-binding resolution against the gas deal in December 2014 after it was first proposed. The opposition includes leading Jordanian trade unions and brings together Islamists and secularists.
While the Jordanian government has portrayed the deal as good for Jordan economically, it has struck a nerve among the public, of which large segments see it not only as a major step towards normalization of relations with Israel, but one that makes the kingdom dependent on Israel and therefore less able to oppose its policies towards the Palestinians. “How will we have the power to face the Israeli challenges and threats if we are, to this extent, intertwined and interlocked with Israel’s interests?” asked Oraib Rantawi, a columnist for the Amman daily ad-Dustour.
“And what is the message that we send to this state of occupation, settlement and Judaization while we proceed with this agreement and proceed on the path of strategic normalization with it?” The coordinating body of opposition to the agreement, the National Campaign Against the Gas Agreement with the Zionist Entity, has been active since the deal was first proposed in 2014, but the signing has given it incentive to broaden its reach.
“The deal gives Israel enormous power in the region and an upper hand in Jordan,” Hisham Bustani, coordinator of the committee, told The New Arab, a pan-Arab website based in London. “It effectively hands Israel $10b. and locks us in a contract for 15 years.
“It’s not just an agreement between two parties – electricity affects all citizens. Tax money from citizens will fund Israeli state terror, and every time they turn on a light they will be relying on electricity coming from Israel.”
In defending the agreement, Jordanian officials say it will save Jordan up to $600 million a year. Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammed Momani denied Sunday that the deal will lessen Jordan’s opposition to Israeli policies, in an interview with Jordan television. “Our stance towards the occupation is clear, and we are the country most capable of confronting this occupation.” However, he stressed that there is a peace agreement with Israel, and trade with it “doesn’t go against our rejection of the occupation.”
The agreement is a “strategic choice” based on diversifying energy resources, he said. Gas supplies from Egypt had been disrupted when jihadists targeted the pipeline in the Sinai Peninsula, he said, implying that Israel is a safer and closer choice. And the agreement makes budgetary sense, he argued. “How can they demand that we support the budget and reduce it, and then when we take active steps they politicize the matter?” he asked.
Sireen Itani, a Jordanian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activist interviewed by The Jordan Times, has little patience for the government stance. “It is a deal rejected by the people of Jordan. It has economic, political and moral consequences that would affect the country in the long term. By signing the agreement, our national security and economy will be at the mercy of the Zionist entity.
“We are funding their next war in Gaza,” she added.
Opponents of the deal are also furious over the timing of the signing – a week after parliamentary elections and before the new parliament takes up its seats. This is seen as a deliberate tactic to avoid debate.
Rantawi, the ad-Dustour columnist, wrote that, while Israel engages in “systematic destruction” of the two-state solution, the government is projecting to Israel the message that it will continue normalization with it, regardless of Israeli actions towards the Palestinians. “So why should Israel worry, and why should it take our considerations into account?” he asked.
He wrote that the government still hasn’t adequately explained its backing for the agreement: “The government should publish a document of facts explaining why it chose the Israeli supplier for the gas and the cost we would have had to pay if we bought from other sources. Transparency here is of far-reaching importance.”