Jordan takes center stage in Israel-PA talks

Diplomacy: Unable to influence events in Iraq, Syria that may spill over into his kingdom, Abdullah looks for input over events happening immediately to his west.

PA President Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
PA President Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
Some 23 years after King Hussein concluded it was in Jordan’s interest to wash his hands of responsibility for the West Bank, his son – King Abdullah II – wants to get those hands dirty again and become actively involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
So far the most significant aspect of the three hours of Israeli-Palestinian talks this week in Amman – talks that are expected to continue next week but that few think will lead to a breakthrough – is the identity of the hosts: the Jordanians.
In July 1988, Hussein announced he was relinquishing any claims to sovereignty over the West Bank. This came after the London Agreement between Hussein and then-foreign minister Shimon Peres (an agreement that would have kept alive the so-called “Jordanian option” for sovereignty over the West Bank) fell through; after more than a half-a-year of the first intifada; and after the Arab League essentially acknowledged Yasser Arafat as the spokesman for the Palestinians.
Hussein’s move at the time was motivated partly by a concern that Israeli counter-measures to the intifada violence would lead to a massive exodus of West Bank Palestinians to the East Bank, something that would potentially undermine the stability of his country, where Palestinians already made up some 60 percent of Jordan’s population.
His move also sent a clear message: the Israelis and Palestinians could bang their heads silly over this issue, but it was no longer a Jordanian problem.
Abdullah, however, is reversing the trend. If in 1988 it was in Jordan’s interest to try and disengage from the problem, now he wants to reengage, largely because of everything happening around him.
Sitting in his palace in Amman, Abdullah looks to his east and sees an Iraq now void of US troops and worries about how a possible descent into chaos in that country, and its breakup into its Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish component parts, could impact him.
He looks north at Syria, sees the possible collapse of President Bashar Assad’s rule, and must worry about who may take over there and whether radical groups will try to penetrate his country from that direction. And then – finally – he looks to his west and is concerned about how a Palestinian state, if it comes into being, will affect him.
With little ability to influence events in either Iraq or Syria, the one place where he may have some say is on his western border – regarding the Palestinian state – and he doesn’t want that to emerge without his input.
And here, too, the king has interests to protect.
The last thing in the world Jordan needs is a weak Palestinian state some 15 minutes from Amman that could be overrun by Hamas. An orderly, Palestinian state run by Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority would be one thing for Jordan.
A Gaza-like territory – a possible base for Iranian Revolutionary Guards and jihadist elements keen on overthrowing not only Israel but Jordan as well – would be something quite different. This prospect is not some fantastical imagined scenario, but a real possibility that worries the king.
Jordan wants a say in what emerges in the West Bank, and how it emerges, so that nothing results that would be contrary to its interests. A new round of Israeli-Palestinian violence is not in his interest, as it could trigger not only a rush toward his border but also unrest in Jordan itself. A lack of talks would play into the hands of those who want violence, which is why he promoted the talks that took place this week in his capital.
The widespread assessment in Jerusalem, though no one would dare say it publicly, is that the Jordanians are indeed interested in a long-term Israeli security presence along the Jordan River.
Unlike Israel, which sees the inclusion of such a security presence as a part of any future agreement as a buffer to keep out undesirable elements that may want to penetrate and take over a nascent Palestinian state, the Jordanians see it as a buffer preventing disruptive elements from the West Bank from making their way east. According to some Israeli assessments, just as Mubarak – concerned about Hamas and how it could hook up with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – was not interested in an open border between Gaza and Egypt, so too Abdullah, with similar concerns, is not savoring the prospect of a porous border between the West Bank and Jordan.
Because of his interests, Abdullah – despite a less-than-warm relationship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – decided to take matters into his own hands and work for a renewal of the talks under Jordanian auspices.
A surprise announcement of the meeting issued on Sunday by Jordan’s Foreign Ministry made it clear how active Abdullah was in making the meeting happen. It also indicated that this had been a reason for his rare visit to Ramallah in November to meet Abbas and was a topic of conversation when he invited President Shimon Peres to Jordan just a few days later.
According to a statement issued by the Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman upon announcing the meeting, “Jordan’s efforts are based on the belief that the two state-solution, which leads to the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian national state, is a top Jordanian interest.”
Inserting himself in the process now, according to some assessments in Jerusalem, is also a wise move by the king to ensure there will be no challenges to his legitimacy, as there have been challenges to the legitimacy of other leaders elsewhere in the Arab world.
For instance, it may be more difficult for the Palestinians in Abdullah’s kingdom to question the king’s legitimacy, and indeed to make common cause with the Islamists and take to the streets to bring him down, if he is seen as working on behalf of the Palestinians.
In this case, engagement in the Palestinian-Israeli issue, not disengagement as was his father’s policy in 1988, may ultimately be a factor helping to ensure Abdullah’s survival.
The Israeli-Palestinian talks that started in Amman may indeed lead nowhere, but the fact that Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh walked out after the initial meeting Sunday to brief the press showed that the Jordanians were already reaping benefits.
While the Arab League observers in Syria were unable to stop the bloodshed there, the Jordanians were seen as making a difference on the Palestinian track. While the US and the Europeans were unable to pressure or entice Israelis and Palestinians back to talks, the Jordanians were seen hosting the talks and sitting around the table. That image is important for them: The Jordanians are players; the Jordanians matter.
This is not a bad posture to take, or a bad message to broadcast to the West, at a time of tumultuous regional change.
Proving yourself useful to the world is a wise tactical move when you might have to ask help from others to weather volcanoes spilling over from Iraq in the east, Syria to the north, or even bubbling up from within.