Marking the 20th anniversary of the peace treaty with Jordan, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon this week talked about the importance of the “strategic alliance” between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom. The alliance, said Ya’alon at a conference at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Center, was created by the events of September 1970.
But that is only partially true.
Indeed, the 1970 events were pivotal in lifting the special yet secret relations that existed between the two sides to a new level, but they were the result of a close, clandestine intelligence and security cooperation that had began a decade earlier, as well as of their unique mutual geo-strategic posture.
A brief reminder: After three years in which Yasser Arafat’s PLO had created in Jordan a state within a state, threatening the very existence of the regime, King Hussein decided that enough was enough. He declared war on the PLO, and his army – the welltrained Arab Legion founded by the British – butchered Palestinian combatants.
President Hafez Assad of Syria, who with his radical anti-monarchist approach saw himself as a supporter of the Palestinian cause, sent in tanks to help the PLO.
The Jordanian monarch feared the invasion would result in his being toppled by the joint Syrian-Palestinian force. Encouraged by the Nixon administration, which perceived the king as a pro-American regional asset, Israel was brought into the frame. Jerusalem concentrated forces on the Israeli-Jordanian border and sent its air force to patrol the skies, signaling to the Syrian invaders that it was ready to act.
The message was received loud and clear in Damascus.
Assad ordered his tanks to roll back, and the king’s life and regime were saved by Israeli intervention – and it was not the first time.
At his Rabin Center lecture, the defense minister also referred to the relations between the two countries as a “secret alliance,” without elaborating. At the center of this is the perception that both countries share common interests and are exposed to the same threats, namely Palestinian terrorists and Arab radicals.
Thus, Jordan was and still remains Israel’s best strategic asset in the region.
THIS UNDERSTANDING goes all the way back to the pre-state days when King Abdullah I, who founded the kingdom with the help of the British, started flirting with Zionist leaders.
On the eve of the War of Independence, he secretly met twice with Golda Meir, hoping to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel while offering the Jewish community of Palestine an autonomous entity within the Hashemite Kingdom. The offer was rejected by Meir, but the two sides reached a tacit understanding.
Israel would allow the Arab Legion to conquer the territory allocated by the UN Partition Plan to an “Arab state,” namely the West Bank, and in return Jordan would not invade areas allocated for the Jewish state.
Aside from some local battlefields around Jerusalem, the two sides respected the understanding.
After the 1948 war, Jordan annexed the West Bank and ruled the two banks of the Jordan River. Because of his dealings with the Jews and Israel, three years later Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian gunman. In 1952 his grandson, the young Hussein, was crowned.
For a decade, the new king struggled to survive in the rough sea of Pan-Arabism preached by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who conspired to oust the king. In that period, Israel helped the king survive such attempts at least twice, by providing him with intelligence tips about the plot to kill him by Syrian and Egyptian agents. Jerusalem, which saw Amman as buffer zone against the expansion of Arab radicalism from Iraq and Syria, had a strong interest in the king keeping his crown and ensuring Jordan remained pro-Western.
Yet only in 1963 did the now mature king realize that having better relations with Israel was to his benefit, and that Israel was the best guarantor of his regime’s survival. That year he met secretly in London with Yaacov Herzog, then deputy director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office. The broker was Dr. Emmanuel Herbert, a British Jew who was the king’s private physician but also an ardent supporter of Israel with close ties to British Zionist leaders such as Lord Sieff, one of the owners of the Marks & Spencer chain.
Yet his secret ties didn’t prevent him from making Jordan’s biggest mistake. The king couldn’t resist Nasser’s request and threats, and joined Egypt in waging war against Israel. In that Six Day War, Jordan lost the West Bank.
After realizing his error and regretting it, the king renewed secret ties with Israel; he went on to meet with Israeli leaders, sitting down dozens of times with Mossad chiefs, long before signing the peace treaty in 1994.
In fact, from 1968, until his death in 1999, Hussein met with every Israeli prime minister - with one exception, Menachem Begin, who made peace with Egypt but refused to see the Jordanian monarch.
In the meetings, the king exchanged views and intelligence estimates about regional developments. He also occasionally provided information, as he did in a meeting with Meir in September 1973, warning that Egypt and Syria had decided to attack Israel. Israeli chiefs of intelligence and the political echelon refused to believe him; two weeks later, the Yom Kippur War broke out.
That was another poor judgment call by the king in terms of Jordanian interests. Had he joined the invading armies, he may have forced Israel to withdraw at least partially from the West Bank, as it did from Sinai and Quneitra on the Golan Heights.
THE 1994 peace treaty aimed to normalize relations primarily on two fronts.
One was to bring out into the open some of the secret security ties between the two nations. Jordanian intelligence was one of the Mossad’s best partners, to the point that they acted together against a common enemy – the Palestinians. The Jordanians would tip off the Mossad about terrorists, handing them over to Israel on occasion and letting Israeli experts observe interrogations of radical Palestinians. Jordanian intelligence even showed readiness to assassinate Hamas and Hezbollah guerrillas if needed.
The second aim was to generate economic ties and help Jordan strengthen its economy.
While the security aspect has been satisfactory, economic relations between the two sides never really took off. True, Israel pumps from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) to provide Jordan with desperately needed water. And true, some Israeli textile firms opened factories in Jordan, mainly because of the low cost of the workforce. Very recently, an agreement to supply Amman with Israeli natural gas from its Mediterranean fields was signed, and there is also a direct aviation line between the two countries.
But these transactions and activities are not enough, and Jordan has suffered from Israeli red tape disguised as security concerns.
The gloomy reality of a cold peace has not met the great expectations for peace dividends.
Towering above all this is the unsolved Palestinian problem. Jordan has an enormous interest in seeing the creation of a Palestinian state; otherwise, it fears that one day Israel will expel Palestinians from the West Bank to make room for more Jewish settlements.
This would eventually make Jordan, which already has a Palestinian majority of some 70 percent, into a Palestinian state.
Thus, what remains of the great vision for peace with Jordan? A shattered dream, and mutual interests in the realm of security and intelligence.
In other words, we are back to square one, to where we were before the peace treaty was signed.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli journalist and writer who specializes in security and intelligence affairs. He is co-author of "Spies Against Armageddon: inside Israel's Secret Wars.
Visit Yossi Melman's blog: www.israelspy.com