Uneasy neighbors

Security forms the bread-and-butter of the 20-year-old peace agreement between Amman and Jerusalem, but there’s no love lost on the Jordanian side.

The Al-Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, houses well over 100,000 Syrian refugees (photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS)
The Al-Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, houses well over 100,000 Syrian refugees
For Avi Etzioni, a hi-tech businessman from Jerusalem, the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty will be a bittersweet reminder of all that has been accomplished since October 1994, but also of so much promise left unfulfilled.
Etzioni made his first trip across the Jordan River soon after the treaty was signed. He believed in the promise of the treaty, and especially in the ability of businesspeople to make peace between peoples.
“At first I certainly understood that I would have to play down that I was from Israel,” Etzioni tells The Jerusalem Report.
“I thought that eventually the hostility to Israel would dissipate, or at least dissipate enough so that I didn’t have to hide my identity. But after 20 years, it’s still a touchy subject. You certainly cannot just approach someone with a slap on the back and say, ‘Hi, I’m Israeli. Want to do business?’ And I’m afraid that if I reveal my contacts to the media, they could certainly experience some negative fallout for having dealt with Israel.”
Still, Etzioni says he has “thriving” business contacts in Jordan. He says “every” businessman in Jordan wants to do business in Israel because they recognize the benefits of doing so. For the Jordanian and Israeli businesses that have chosen to take advantage of the opportunities, the peace treaty has proved its value.
“Look, about 50 percent of the hitech business that Israel outsources goes to Jordan,” Etzioni relates. “For many reasons, Jordan is an excellent destination for technology work. There are many, many smart, well-educated tech workers in Amman, and the wages there are far lower than here in Israel. There is another advantage as well: Jordan is close enough that if there is a glitch of any kind, a tech executive or project manager can make a snap decision, drive to Amman to take care of the problem and come home the next day.
“But there is no question that there is still a very strong stigma in Jordanian society about doing business with Israel. It’s sort of like the worst-kept secret in the world.
All Arab businessmen want to connect with Israel because they want to make money. But they are afraid of the social – and possibly physical – backlash if those relationships come out in the open,” Etzioni contends.
Etzioni's comments reflect the state of the peace as Israel and Jordan prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1994 peace treaty.
At the most basic level, the signatories to the agreement understand it differently.
Israel signed the deal hoping for cultural ties, people-to-people relations, bilateral tourism and economic opportunities. From the Jordanian perspective, the agreement had its roots in a crippling budget deficit.
Three years before the treaty, Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Shamir had interceded with the George H.W. Bush’s US administration not to punish Jordan’s King Hussein too badly for backing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1990-1 Gulf War. Shortly after Bill Clinton took office in 1992, he made an offer the king could not refuse: American economic aid in exchange for peace with Israel.
To sweeten the deal, Israel agreed to help Jordan address its perennial water shortage, to the tune of 50 million cubic meters of fresh water a year and a commitment that “Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem.”
ON THE ground in Jordan, a midday drive along Route 65, the north-south highway that runs along the Jordanian side of the Jordan River Valley, is clogged and polluted. Traffic moves slowly, not because there are so many cars but because there do not appear to be any road markings or traffic laws to speak of. Every once in a while a policeman appears in the middle of the ruckus to direct traffic; they supply the only semblance of order on the road.
Along the side of the road, automobile repair shops, small groceries and cheap toy stores appear to be the main businesses, but even they do not occupy a majority of the retail space available. Instead, every town along the Valley is sullied by eyesores: half-completed buildings, abandoned store fronts, building shells that appear to have once been in use but have fallen into disrepair as a result of many years of idleness.
The nameless towns are crowded with people, but there does not appear to be much focus to their activity. Along the road, farmers offer passersby fresh produce on makeshift stands, at prices far below the prices in Amman, the Jordanian capital, an hour’s drive away, but supply appears to far outstrip demand. On every corner and at every bus stop, groups of young men idle the afternoon away in groups of four or five, passing the time on the hazy spring day and preparing for the long, hot summer ahead.
And then, there are the Syrian refugees, in makeshift camps along the side of the road, in large and small tents with the blue UN High Commissioner for Refugees logo.
Here in the Valley, encampments range in size from three to 30 or so tents. Closer to Amman, the refugee sites are larger, but still pale in comparison to the enormous refugee camps in the north of the country.
The Al-Zaatari camp, located just two kilometers from the Syrian border in the Mafraq Governorate, now houses well over 100,000 Syrian refugees, making it the second largest refugee camp in the world and the fourth largest “city” in Jordan.
In general, the Hashemite Kingdom has been spared the Arab Spring upheavals that have rocked much of the Arab world since December 2010. But the two issues described above – poverty and refugees – have set the country on edge. On multiple occasions over the past year, antigovernment protesters have been killed, in Jordanian cities as well as in Syrian refugee camps. While the demonstrations were hardly the first protests against the Hashemite regime, the current opposition – known as al-Hirak – was comprised mainly of tribal elements normally considered loyal to the regime. To the north, riots in the Al-Zaatari camp have left several people dead and dozens wounded.
Dr. Efraim Inbar, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, says Jordan’s economic woes should be considered little more than a blip on the screen of issues facing the country.
“The unrest that we’ve seen in Jordan is entirely economic,” Inbar tells The Report.
“You’re looking at a few billion dollars a year to set things right there, not more thanthat. It’s nothing the Saudis couldn’t give them in a minute if they really needed.
Abdullah has weathered many storms before. I wouldn’t worry about a popular uprising against him.”
Still, both the Hashemite regime and the Israeli defense establishment have reason to be concerned about the million and a half refugees who have fled the civil war just over the border in Syria. This is a potentially noxious combination of unemployed young people, restless and hungry refugees, and the possibility that Salafi, al-Qaeda or other radical Islamic groups could make their way over the border.
Furthermore, even financially stable refugees could potentially destabilize the Hashemite regime by driving up rent and food prices in cities such as Irbid, where middle-class Syrians are reportedly paying premium prices for apartment rentals, thus pricing ordinary Jordanians out of the housing market, causing resentment and calls on the government to restore subsidies for basic services and food.
While the refugee issue has not yet pushed Amman into full-blown crisis mode, well over 100,000 Syrians now attend school in Jordan, further taxing an already underfunded public school system, in a country that has operated at a net deficit since its inception in 1920.
Even more seriously, the addition of 1.5 million additional souls into the waterstrapped country has created a veritable water emergency. That reality has forced the palace to ask Israel for an additional 10 million cubic meters of desalinated water to complement the 50 million cubic meters that Israel provides the kingdom each year under the terms of the peace treaty.
MEANWHILE, BACK in Amman, there is little expectation – and no desire – for cultural normalization with Israel. Analysts in Israel and Jordan agree that if Jordan were a democracy, the treaty would have been abrogated long ago. “I know very few people who openly support the alliance with Israel,” Kirk H. Sowell, founder and president of Uticensis Risk Services, a strategic consultancy firm based in Amman, tells The Report.
An illustration of the deep animosity that the Jordanian public feels towards Israel is in the reaction to the appointment of a new Jordanian ambassador to Israel in October 2012. At the time, the powerful Obeidat tribe from Irbid called on nominee Walid Obeidat to refuse the posting to Tel Aviv.
When Obeidat refused the demand, the tribe back at home marked his acceptance of the job with black flags and a declaration of a day of mourning.
If there is any area of real agreement between Israel and the Hashemite regime, it is on the need for security. The treaty acknowledges that “mutual understanding and cooperation in security-related matters will form a significant part” of the Israel- Jordan relationship, and calls on both sides to “base their security relations on mutualcooperation.”
According to Inbar, it was clear even before the treaty was signed that security would form the bread-and-butter of the agreement. It was also clear that the ultimate survival of the Hashemite regime could eventually come to depend on Israel.
As a result, he says both sides have upheld the letter of the law with regard to all security clauses. He also said that personal ties are more out in the open between Israeli and Jordanian security officials than in any other area.
“You’ve got to remember, Jordan is surrounded by potential enemies, in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria. For decades, Israel was King Hussein’s insurance policy. We helped Jordan get Iraqi troops out of their country as early as the 1960s, we helped deter attacks from Syria in 1970. So the treaty really formalized the strategic interests we had shared for so many years prior,” Inbar says.
In contrast to Kirk Sowell’s analysis, several analysts in Israel recall that in the initial stage, the treaty period was greeted by strong support from the Jordanian public. But, significantly, no Jordanian interviewed for this article remembered a period of support for peace with Israel.
To whatever degree the Jordanian public did support the accord back in the 1990s, it is significant to recall that the agreement was signed in October 1994, just a year after prime minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Declaration of Principles with PLO leader Yasser Arafat and just four months after Arafat arrived in Gaza to create the Palestinian Authority.
In that context, it is relevant that that Hashemites believed that their peace treaty with Israel would also spell an end, once and for all, to the idea that Jordan will somehow become a Palestinian state. All analysts interviewed for this article, both on and off the record, agreed that the Hashemites view Palestinian nationalism as an existential threat with the potential to spill over the Jordan River, and they viewed Hashemite support for the Oslo process as an insurance policy against the “Israel is Jordan” option.
And, then, there is Jerusalem. Many Israeli analysts and public figures feel that Jordan’s supposed fealty to the Palestinian cause and to Jerusalem has become little more than a club with which to beat Israel. They point to squalid conditions in Palestinian refugee camps throughout Jordan and to the violent repression of the Black September uprising in 1970 as proof for their claim that the Jordanians are more interested in scoring political points at Israel’s expense than striving to protect Muslim rights in the Holy City.
The Jordanian passion for Jerusalem, say detractors, developed as a reaction to Israel’s sovereignty on the Temple Mount.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, says Kirk Sowell. “There’s a bit of history here that is absolutely critical tothe Jerusalem issue,” he asserts. “You’ve got to understand: When Emir Abdullah, the current king’s great-great-grandfather, lost the Hejaz, it was a terrible blow for the Hashemites. They had lost a critical part of their identity and heritage. So when they talk about Hashemite guardianship of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, it’s a very emotional issue for them. They take their custodianship of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem very, very seriously. “Add to that the fact that anything Israel does in Jerusalem is likely to outrage people in general here, and you’ve got a very potent powder keg waiting to explode,” Sowell contends.
It is an issue that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is keenly aware of.
It is also the background to Netanyahu’s statements in recent months reaffirming Israel’s commitment to the status quo on the Temple Mount – that the Jordanian Muslim authorities would continue to be responsible for overall management of the site, while Israel maintained security control on and around the site.
“The policy of the government of Israel has been and continues to be the maintenance of the status quo at the Temple Mount, including freedom of access for all faiths to the holy sites,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for the prime minister, told The Jerusalem Post on February 27. “The government has no intention of changing this policy.”
Traveling around Jordan, it is tough to accept Efraim Inbar’s analysis that Jordan’s economic woes are not too serious and easily fixed with a generous holiday bonus from Riyadh every Ramadan. Even to the first-time visitor, it is clear that the challenges facing Jordan are deeply ingrained, widespread and getting worse.
And even if the Saudis were to accept Inbar’s proposal to prop up the Hashemite regime for the foreseeable future, it is unclear exactly how the newfound riches would create employment for the nearly 12 percent of Jordanians who are unemployed.
The yawning gap between east and west Amman, or between the capital and the poor towns elsewhere in the country, does not bode well for the long term.
Ultimately, however, it would appear that the fortunes of the peace treaty will hinge on Jordan’s ability to continue to dodge the Arab Spring. To date, Abdullah has walked a thin line between freedom of expression (by allowing large-scale demonstrations to criticize the government and, occasionally, even the royal family) on one hand, and asserting his unquestioned, unchallenged status as ruler (by refusing to annul the treaty and by refusing to bow to demands to expel Israeli Ambassador Daniel Nevo following the shooting death by an IDF soldier of Palestinian-Jordanian judge Raed Zuaiter on March 10).
The golden question, then, is whether or not Abdullah can hold off majority demands for political power in the kingdom, and for how long?