The shifting balance

The rapprochement between Jordan and Hamas presents new challenges to Israel.

Mashaal and Abdullah 521 (photo credit: YOUSEF ALLAN / REUTERS)
Mashaal and Abdullah 521
(photo credit: YOUSEF ALLAN / REUTERS)
It's no exaggeration to describe Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal’s official visit to Jordan as a dramatic event in the Jordanian- Palestinian-Israeli relationship.
Twelve years ago, Hamas activists, among them Mashaal, were expelled from the Kingdom of Jordan after Hamas was designated a subversive organization damaging the foundation of the monarchy.
And now, Mashaal comes to Jordan as an honored guest, with a large entourage, accompanied by the Qatari heir to the throne, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani. This seems like a prelude to Hamas’s return to Jordan.
The visit wasn’t surprising since, in October, King Abdullah replaced his prime minister, the conservative military man Marouf al-Bakhit, with jurist Awn al- Khasawneh, who, in one of his first announcements, said expelling Hamas from Jordan was an unfortunate mistake.
Many in Israel saw this announcement as a warning. Khasawneh vehemently opposed the peace deal between Jordan and Israel signed by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein at an impressive ceremony on the Aqaba-Eilat border in 1994. Covering the event, I met both Jordanians and Israelis who described Khasawneh’s efforts to prevent the signing of the agreement.
There’s no doubt that Khasawneh stands behind the initiative to host Mashaal, with the king’s approval, of course. Since the expulsion Mashaal did visit Jordan twice, privately, to attend the funerals of his parents.
It has been reported that Mashaal’s family, together with those of other Hamas leaders, have left Damascus to live in Jordan.
The mufti fans the flames
Another figure that took encouragement from the appointment of Khasawneh and Mashaal’s visit was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein. The mufti, and the Muslim establishment in Jerusalem, is under the sponsorship and supervision of the Jordanian government. Jordan pays the salaries of the waqf officials responsible for the Temple Mount, and, in most cases, the waqf administration operates in cooperation with the Jordanian government.
They cooperated on the repairs on the Temple Mount and to the Old City walls and on opposition to the Israeli plan to rebuild the Mughrabi Gate Bridge.
It’s unlikely that it’s a coincidence that Hussein elected at this juncture to quote portions of the Koran that call for killing Jews. Such quotes have been heard many times in the past from Muslim religious figures and have been discussed during the few meetings of a joint Israel-Palestinians committee on incitement. The mufti sensed that the new atmosphere in Amman is conducive to such incitement.
The date of Mashaal’s visit wasn’t coincidental either. Abdullah waited for the right moment. He recently broadcast his intention to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; he visited Washington and discussed the topic with President Barack Obama; he initiated talks in Amman between Israeli representative Yitzhak Molcho and Palestinian representative Saeb Erekat.
The talks failed. Right from the start it was hard to find someone who thought they would bring any real results. In hindsight, the meetings between Molcho and Erekat seemed to be a sham performance by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, meant to indicate that they were responding to international pressure (mainly from the Quartet), and intended restarting negotiations. The Palestinians’ initial response was to reject a document presented by Molcho. They said it showed that Israel is trying to turn the West Bank into a collection of enclaves and isolated cantons.
After the show ended, the Palestinians declared that they were renewing efforts to get the support of the Arab world to obtain recognition of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.
Moving house
Mashaal’s visit to Amman appears to indicate the end of Hamas’s alliance with the regimes in Damascus and Tehran. Turkey has recently taken Tehran’s place by giving Hamas financial support. Mashaal is trying to move his headquarters to Amman from Damascus. It’s true Qatar has offered Hamas a temporary home, but Qatar is far away. It’s much more comfortable in Jordan among family members and a Palestinian populace, and within reach of Ramallah and Gaza.
Although Mashaal has resigned as head of Hamas’s political bureau, his status as leader of the organization remains. His resignation was a formality, as according to Hamas regulations the bureau head can only serve for two terms, while in Mashaal’s case an exception was made to allow him a third term. The talk in Hamas is that he will be appointed “general guide,” or leader of the organization, equivalent to the position in the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent body.
Hamas needs Jordan as a safe haven from Damascus – but the regime in Jordan needs Hamas to the same degree.
The king and his government have been worrying that the Arab Spring will reach their doorstep. It’s clear to them that the Islamist movements are accumulating enormous power in every corner of the Arab world, from Morocco in the west to Kuwait in the east. There are demonstrations in the streets in Amman every Friday (after prayers), where slogans against the king and the Hashemite regime are constantly being heard. So far the Jordanian government has succeeded in fending off the waves of criticism. And it has done so with the help of the millions of dollars the Gulf Emirates have pumped into the Jordanian economy to support the regime and prevent price increases.
Palestinian Spring
Signs of a “Palestinian Spring” are also becoming evident. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced in the beginning of January that his government is in the midst of a grave financial crisis and the budget would be cut and taxes raised. This has come about because of a significant drop in donations from the international community and Arab countries. Fayyad intends to raise income tax and implement an early retirement plan for some of the 150,000 government workers.
Against this background there were demonstrations in recent weeks in Nablus, Ramallah and Tulkarm. Palestinian economists warned that the public won’t be able to bear the rising cost of living in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Palestinian territories are an integral part of the Arab world. And just as in the Arab world the wave of mass protests is accompanied by a rise in power of Islamist movements – the same is happening among the Palestinians.
The balance in the Israel-Jordan- Palestinians triangle has been upset. The presence of Mashaal and the organization’s leadership in Amman is a clear sign of that, and it presents new challenges to Israeli policies.