Diplomacy: There goes the neighborhood

If Gaza is Israel's porch, the West Bank is Jordan's backyard, and Abdullah is justified in fearing a spillover effect.

abdullah II 88 (photo credit: )
abdullah II 88
(photo credit: )
With Israel's attention focused this week on various overtures from Damascus and the specter of civil war in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan's King Abdullah II hosted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Amman and sent a simple message to all: "Hey, guys, don't forget about us." Indeed, Jordan - according to government sources in Jerusalem - is as concerned about the deteriorating tensions in Gaza and the West Bank as is Israel. Likewise, Amman is very wary of Syria, and is not keen on seeing Israel do anything, such as negotiate with Damascus, that could let it break out of its international isolation. Jordan has long-standing water issues with Syria regarding the flow of the Yarmuk, whose headwaters are in Syria but which is Jordan's most important water source. Tensions between the two countries were further strained earlier this year, following Jordanian allegations that arms for planned terrorist attacks inside the Hashemite kingdom were smuggled in from Syria. The Olmert visit to Amman was - like previous meetings or planned ones between Israeli prime ministers and the king - shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Abdullah secretly visited former prime minister Ariel Sharon's ranch in March 2004, a visit publicized only after the fact, and another planned trip here in September of that year was cancelled, apparently because of annoyance over prepublicity about it. Since Abdullah took over from his father, King Hussein, in 1999, secrecy regarding contacts with top Israeli officials has been the norm, perhaps an indication that while he views his relationship with Israel as vital and a strategic asset, he is well aware that these ties are not exactly lauded by his subjects, and so the less public they are, the better. Officials in Jerusalem said that this week's meeting was made public only after the royal palace realized that reporters had gotten wind of its existence. THOUGH PLANNED about a month in advance, the talks were connected to the worsening situation in the PA, with Jordan watching the developments there with a very worried eye, and keen on hearing how Israel planned to respond to the situation. Olmert finally commented in public this week on the internal Palestinian situation, saying that Israel was not pleased by the violence, which, he said, did nothing to help stabilize the situation in the region in general or Israel's relations with the Palestinians in particular. To some, his comments rang a bit hollow. According to their argument, Palestinian gunmen's facing off against each other, as opposed to attacking Israel, could only be beneficial. Wrong, indicated Olmert, saying that Israel wanted to see the cease fire between Fatah and Hamas hold. Why? Because if there is a fire on one's porch, those in the living room are bound to inhale the smoke. Indeed, some defense officials attributed Wednesday's steep spike in Kassam attacks to the internal Palestinian political situation, saying there would be an increase in terror attacks as long as the intra-Palestinian fighting raged on. The reason for this is simple: The terrorists hope the attacks will provoke an Israeli response that would unite all the Palestinian factions against Israel. For instance, if there were an incursion into Gaza to try to silence the rockets, it is most probable the Palestinians would cease fighting among themselves and unite to fight the IDF. And if Gaza is Israel's porch, the West Bank is Jordan's backyard, and Abdullah is justified in fearing a spillover effect. "The concern in Jordan about what is going on is acute," one government official in Jerusalem said. "Jordan, like the other moderate Sunni regimes - Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Egypt - is concerned about the deterioration in the region. But this is not just another source of instability, this is right on Jordan's doorstep and has direct ramifications." While the situation in the West Bank has more direct impact on Jordan than the situation in Gaza, the two are intertwined, and Jordan, according to Israeli officials, is petrified by anarchy in the PA. "It threatens them," one government source said. "They see a scenario in which hundreds of thousands of refuges will flee the anarchy into Jordan, and that will impact not only the country's economy, but also the overall fabric of society." But even if there is not a massive run for the border, Abdullah is still concerned about Hamas's ascendancy and the way it has been emboldened - and what impact that could have on the Muslim Brotherhood in his own country. According to Israeli assessments, the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January invigorated the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, and led to a fear that if the Islamist radicals could win an election in the PA, they could also do well in elections in Jordan. With parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, the concern is that the developments in the PA will have a positive impact on the Muslim Brotherhood - or as it is known in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front. Hamas is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Damascus-based Hamas head Khaled Mashaal was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. King Hussein intervened to save Mashaal's life after the botched Mossad assassination attempt in Amman in 1997, but - indicative of the complicated and inconsistent relationship Jordan has had with Hamas - Abdullah expelled him and three other Hamas leaders in 1999 for unlawful activities, and closed the organization's offices in the country. RELATIONS BETWEEN Hamas and Jordan got even worse earlier this year, when Jordan arrested a number of Hamas members for arms smuggling and plotting to attack Jordanian security officials and public places inside the country. In addition, Jordan - according to assessments in Jerusalem - is increasingly worried about the growing public connection between Iran and Jordan, amid its fear of Shi'ite radicalism. If the concern had previously been the possibility of being overrun by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, now the cardinal concern is of a radical Shi'ite crescent. Indeed, it was Abdullah himself who coined this phrase in 2004, when he told The Washington Post that Iran was seeking to create a "Shi'ite crescent" that would include Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Granted, Hamas is not a Shi'ite movement, but its growing ties with Teheran and its brand of Islamic radicalism are unsettling for Abdullah. "Abdullah views Hamas as Iran's contact in the area," the government source said. It is for this reason, the official added, that Abdullah was keen on talking with Olmert about ways to try to stabilize the situation inside the PA. But his recipe for regional stabilization is not very novel - returning to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians - and still lacks clarity about whom Israel should be negotiating with. "The Jordanians want us to return to negotiations with the Palestinians," the source said. "The king's position is that the extremists feed off the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the continuation of the status quo poses a danger to the moderates." He said that it was clear that the Jordanians would like to see PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah come out of the current crisis as the clear victors, but that Jordan's ability to influence developments is severely limited, and that it has about as much leverage on Hamas as Israel does. Even the idea of sending the Badr Brigade to the PA areas to bolster Abbas is considered of little significance in fighting against Hamas. The Badr Brigade, a 2,000-member force that is part of the Palestinian Liberation Army which was founded in 1964 as the armed wing of the PLO, is considered in Israel to be an aging unit whose ability to tip the scales in Abbas's favor is very limited. "The Jordanians have a clear interest in trying to defuse the situation," the official said. "But they don't really have the capacity to do it."