Despite the fact that much of the Jordanian population sees Israel as the enemy, cooperation and people-to-people relations are quietly and slowly growing.
The second batch of 500 Jordanian day workers was recently approved to work in hotels in Eilat, and the government hopes to eventually reach 1,500 Jordanian workers in the Red Sea city.
Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud) has been pushing for expanded relations with Israel’s neighbor including a “Jordan Gateway” project, which would include a new bridge between Israel and Jordan as part of a shared industrial zone in the northern Jordan Valley.
Following his visit to Jordan, where he was on hand to promote the project, Kara revealed that the process to construct the bridge has begun, with tenders being issued for building.
“The final preparations to start the work are being made,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
The ultimate goal, Kara explained, is to open the border between the two countries.
As such, talks are under way to open a new border crossing with Jordan near the Dead Sea to ease tourist travel and bring in more Jordanian workers to replace illegal African migrants.
Dr. Abdullah Sawalha, director of the Amman-based Center for Israel Studies, is keen on facilitating cooperation projects of this nature.
For example, Sawalha, who frequently visits Israel, is spearheading a partnership between the Amman Center and the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. The agreement, signed last summer, sent the first delegation of Jordanian students to Israel on May 1.
Some of the students study in the Hebrew department at Yarmouk University, which is located in the northern Jordan city of Irbid, noted Sawalha.
The students will travel throughout the country and learn a narrative they have perhaps never heard.
“Part of our mission and commitment is to educate our people about Israel,” said Sawalha, who mentioned that a group of Israeli students is planning to visit Jordan in September and meet with Jordanian students.
In addition, there is a plan to translate from Hebrew into Arabic a book by former Israeli ambassador to Jordan Prof.
Shimon Shamir, who is at the Moshe Dayan Center. The entire project to translate the book will take place in Jordan and will be the first time a center in Jordan translates an Israeli book, said the think tank director.
The center’s director, Uzi Rabi, is a firm believer that academic cooperation is a conduit to promoting relations between the two countries.
Noting the strong opposition to such cooperation in Jordan, Rabi is optimistic in the long run that relations will continue to improve.
Sawalha also pointed out that there has been dialogue between his think tank and the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies about how to defuse tensions on the Temple Mount.
“The aim is to redefine the status quo, because Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians each have their own perspective about what that is,” he explained.
The Center for Israel Studies, which is seeking US government funding, began only a year ago and is off to a fast start with a flurry of activity.
Due to the sensitive nature of his projects, Sawalha has found himself serving as a shadow diplomat of sorts, doing things that would land the country’s official diplomats in hot water with Jordanians who oppose normalization. Sawalha dismisses any official connection with the government, but says there is a great need to “create public opinion that supports this kind of cooperation.”
“Both countries have a mutual interest and common threats so we have to develop these relations,” he added.
“If you are talking about the environment, energy or agriculture, these problems don’t recognize borders. We need to find a new approach and we have a peace treaty, but as you see, people in Jordan still think Israel is our enemy,” explained Sawalha.
The common belief in the Arab world is that Israel exists in this region even though it is regarded as an enemy, but “there is a growing opinion that there is a need to cooperate with Israel because of mutual interests.”
“We have to change the public opinion in Jordan,” he said, adding that he is now trying to conduct public opinion polls in Jordan to know exactly who is against Israel and who is for it and under what conditions Jordanians would agree to work and cooperate with Israel.
“We don’t have statistics,” he realized in discussions with his colleagues in Jordan and Israel, adding that “it is not healthy to only hear angry rhetoric from parliament members or newspapers that Jordanians are against Israel.”
As a result, a polling company is being sought to conduct the survey as well as funding.
The institute publishes in Arabic on its Facebook page in order to educate Jordanians about Israel and he is quick to point out that the center receives no government support.
Sawalha has been interviewed by the Jordanian media and has had a few articles published in newspapers, but it is not easy to get articles promoting relations with Israel published.
“It is only a matter of time. I am sure we will succeed with a step-by-step strategy to find a way to change Jordanian public opinion.”
Many Israeli journalists and colleagues press him to be more active in Jordanian media, talking about boosting cooperation, but “this is not the time,” cautioned Sawalha.
“I don’t feel a threat; Jordan is very safe.
I am working for this initiative to succeed, and for that reason I have to move slowly, or else all of our enemies in Jordan will attack me at the same time.”