Jordan's King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 25, 2018.
(photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
Jordan's announcement on Sunday that it wanted to opt out of annexes from its 1994 peace treaty with Israel that leased two border areas that historically were difficult to delineate to Israel is a sign that not all is well in ties between the two countries. .
More precisely, not all is well in ties between Israel and the Jordanian people.
The government to government ties between Jerusalem and Amman are strong
, with both sides recognizing that while the other might not always do what they want, both their interests are supremely served by peace and cooperation. Where there is a problem is at the people to people level, or, more precisely, at the Jordanian people.
In very general terms, it's fair to say that the 1994 peace agreement did not filter down to Jordanian masses. The Jordanians might already be drinking Israeli water, are scheduled to be heating their homes with Israeli natural gas in 2020, and benefit in numerous ways from security cooperation with Israel, but, for the most part, they don't like Israel.
And this is something that King Abdullah II has to take into account.
Jordan's announcement on Sunday regarding the Naharayim (Baqura) area near the Kinneret and part of Zofar (al Ghamar), in the Arava, did not knock anyone off their chair in Jerusalem. There has been talk for months inside Jordan of the need to regain those two areas. There have been debates in parliament, and even protests on the streets – much of it led by Islamic elements inside the Hashemite Kingdom.
Abdullah is in vice. While he needs the peace treaty with Israel for the security of his regime, he has domestic Islamic elements to deal with and at times placate. He is also dealing with Syrian crisis, which has not only inundated his country with refugees, but also put Iran perilously close.
The language Abdullah used in announcing the move – Jordanian land, Jordanian interests– is a bone thrown to the Islamists.
The Jordanian News agency Petra reported that the King said “Baqura and Ghamr are Jordanian territory and will remain Jordanian, and we will exercise full sovereignty over our land.” He said this has been a top priority for “a long time,” and that Jordan's priorities “in such difficult regional circumstances are protecting our interests and doing everything necessary for Jordan and the Jordanians.”
That is language that appeals to the Islamists opposed to the treaty with Israel, and who have worked for years to narrow it.
Internal pressure might be a major reason for the King's decision, but not necessarily the only one. Business is also involved.
Jordan has for months expressed frustration that Israel is dragging its feet in implementing an agreement signed in 2015 that would have a desalination plant for Jordan built in Aqaba, from which Israel will purchase for its south and allowing it to sell more water to Jordan from lake Kinneret for Jordan’s north, where there is a mighty increase because of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have filtered down as a result of the Syrian Civil War.
Under the ambitious plan, brine from the desalination plant near Aqaba would then be piped north to the Dead Sea, to help deal with the ecological problems facing the lake.
This is a plan the Jordanians are very keen on seeing implemented, but which has not taken off because of concerns in Israel about its economic feasibility.
Just as the Israel-Jordan peace treaty stipulates that one side can announce that it wants to opt out of the annexes, the agreement also stipulated that when it does so, the two countries will open consultations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not respond with much concern to the announcement on Sunday, saying that the two sides will now open negotiations. In those negotiations, Israel is not without leverage.
For instance, Alan Baker, a veteran diplomat and former legal advisor to the foreign minister who is now director of the International Law Program at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said Israel allows planes to and from Jordan to overfly its airspace, saving considerable time and money. Baker, who was part of the team that negotiated the treaty with Jordan, said Israel also allows Jordanian trucks to use Israel's ports. These, too, are things that Israel could decide to withhold.
“There is an extensive range of agreements between Israel and Jordan,” he said. “It is a two way process, and in the consultations between the countries, all these aspects will presumably be covered.”
Sunday's announcement in Jordan is the start of a process, not the end of one. Now the negotiations will begin.
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