A chilly peace

Twenty years after the historic signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, a journalist reflects back on how a grandiose promise failed to create real change on the ground.

King Hussein of Jordan lights a cigarette for prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the royal residence in Aqaba in 1994. (photo credit: GPO)
King Hussein of Jordan lights a cigarette for prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the royal residence in Aqaba in 1994.
(photo credit: GPO)
Fifteen years ago, five years after the Israel-Jordan peace treaty was signed, I strolled the streets of Amman with a Jordanian friend. In his 20s, he was a spoiled boy born to a family of wealthy Palestinian refugees.
Our conversation went the usual route of complaining about the fruits of peace. The Jordanians were hoping peace with Israel would mean increased economic opportunities, like gold falling from the sky, my friend explained, taking a bit of poetic license. When that didn’t happen, they took it upon themselves to complain to every Israeli they met.
In those days, the army had begun dismantling the minefields on both sides of the border along the Jordan River. A short time later, the Jordanians declared a small area on the river to be the baptismal site of Jesus – even bringing pope John Paul II for a visit in 2000.
“Look,” I told him, “there won’t be any more war; large fields were cleared of mines. You wont have to fear war with Israel.”
He looked at me and said, “What’s good about that?” “For us it’s bad,” he continued. “People join the army to get a job. When there is no war some of the army brigades are unnecessary, and when the army is small there are fewer jobs in the market.”
That was my first lesson in understanding the other side. We also have people who work in the IDF and make a living out of war, politically, economically and militarily. For our neighbors, it is much simpler: When there is war, there are jobs – but not in times of peace.
THE SECOND lesson came a few months later. On November 23, 1999, a young Jordanian man fired several gunshots at police guarding the entrance to the Israeli Embassy in Amman.
Writing for Ma’ariv at the time, I was assigned the story, and four short hours later was standing in front of the embassy doors, freezing in the Jordanian cold, hoping for someone to come out of the building. The embassy at that time was not yet surrounded by 200 meters of barricades, like some sort of secret base.
The only Israeli diplomat who was willing to speak to me asked that I wait until he finished his meetings.
In Tel Aviv, they were chomping at the bit to publish the story – but at the crime scene, as night descended and the cold became more bitter, there was no urgency and the area was empty. Not even a dog passed by.
Getting anxious, I phoned the Jordanian interior minister, who was in charge of defense issues. I got hold of his driver, who said he was in a meeting but would be free in a half-hour. Forty minutes later I called again, and the driver said the minister was still busy.
I was standing just a few meters from the walls of the embassy, night enveloping the al-Rabia neighborhood, when suddenly I remembered that the sound of the minister’s voice was exactly the same as that of his purported driver; this was his way to avoid talking to me.
The next day I met with an Italian journalist named Francesca, and told her how the minister was waving off reporters. “It’s normal,” she said, dismissing my concerns. “You aren’t the only one.” As time passed, I realized it was common among our neighbors to refuse a person indirectly so he wouldn’t be disappointed.
I weighed the pros and cons of this interaction.
Was it better to have a senior minister refuse to talk to a reporter with a little white lie, or live in a place where honesty is delivered at face value, no matter how brutal? A few weeks after that night, I got a chance to see the second option in action, in Israel, as president Ezer Weizman returned from Cairo and threatened to slap me, because he thought that the pen I was using during our interview was going to stain his shirt.
Of course, since then I have learned that lying is not a phenomenon found solely among any one country’s politicians – but let’s not get off track here.
The story of how the peace treaty led to a deficit of jobs in Jordan and one minister’s efforts to remain out of an Israeli newspaper are just some examples that illustrate the complicated relationship between Amman and Jerusalem. After 20 years, the Jordanian street is still disappointed with the outcome of the treaty, and resents its government’s interaction with Israel.
What is not seen in the public eye is the close cooperation between governments, especially the defense forces.
Projects under the radar “A complex strategic partnership” is how Dr. David Guvrin, director of the Jordan and the Maghreb division at the Foreign Ministry, defines relations with Amman.
Guvrin points to this paradox: “On the one hand, Jordanians say that peace did not yield enough fruit, and on the other hand, when things are done, they conceal them so the Jordanian public does not know anything.” Indeed, the Wadi Araba agreement – as the peace treaty is called in Jordan – relies on a secret security and intelligence relationship, in addition to agreements and contracts for economic cooperation that strategically bind the two sides.
One such agreement is for the supply of Israeli gas to Jordan. Signed two months ago, the Jordanian government denies this arrangement on the grounds that the negotiations were conducted with US gas producer Noble Energy, even though the gas comes from Israel’s offshore Leviathan site. The memorandum of understanding promises the Hashemite Kingdom a supply of gas to generate electricity for 15 years. For Israel, the amount is negligible – a maximum of four billion cubic meters per year. The agreement will come into force in late 2017, and Jordan will pay about $1 billion a year for it.
Just around the corner, a desalination facility is waiting to be built in the city of Aqaba. The project, which was launched in December 2013 but has yet to be completed, will create desalinated water from the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat with a capacity of 80 million cubic meters, 10 million to 15 million of which will be for Jordanian use, with the rest flowing into Israel for the use of Arava residents.
The waste from the facility, which includes saltwater, will flow into the Dead Sea and may contribute to its rescue. The modular facility can be expanded at any time, and if necessary, will also produce water for the Palestinians.
“It is a beautiful project that will strengthen the ties between us and the Jordanians for many years,” said an Israeli official familiar with the plans. “It is still under contract discussions but after it is set up, it could also generate electricity.”
Guvrin says that “there are also ad-hoc collaborations that are looking to make the most of the opportunities.
“The Syrian civil war halted the export channel through Syria, Jordan and Turkey. As a result, the Jordanians are shipping their containers through Haifa. In addition, Israel has decided to employ up to 1,500 hotel workers in Eilat after the reduction of the African labor force, especially in the restaurant business. “ Both sides are in contact to try and expand the Arava terminal near Eilat, to better transfer goods from Israel and send exports through Aqaba Port. Going through a Jordanian channel will be cheaper for Israeli farmers, especially those who export to Asia but currently have to go through the ports in Haifa and Ashdod. Slated to begin in two years and in cooperation with Jordan, this program is supported by the Finance Ministry, which is looking to break Israel’s port monopolies.
Good intentions? But there were also many projects that simply collapsed; whether too ambitious, from political pressure or simply a lack of motivation. Former president Shimon Peres initiated the establishment of a joint university in the Arava, which never came to fruition.
Experts on both sides tried to start a “Dead Red” project, which was meant to transport water from the Gulf of Eilat to the Dead Sea via a land canal, with the intent to produce electricity and enrich the Dead Sea water basin.
Another project “of strategic importance” – as noted by prime minister Ariel Sharon – gaining immense support that evaporated just as quickly was the establishment of an Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian scientific research center near Ein Yahav. Businessman Mati Kochavi, who made his fortune in real estate and security in the US, would lead the project.
A cornerstone-laying ceremony in the Arava in March 2004 brought together prominent Israelis including Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad and Israel Institute president Prof. Itamar Rabinovich; senior officials from the US Department of Defense; and Jordanian politicians. Attendees were then flown to the royal palace in Amman for a cocktail party.
Kochavi promised that in addition to being a hub for biological studies, the center would be a hotel and meeting point for business travelers, hikers and cyclists. A scholarship fund was established to encourage young Israelis and Jordanians to study there, under the sponsorship of the prestigious Cornell and Stanford universities.
Israeli, Jordanian and Western scientists began a research project about organisms in the Dead Sea a short time later, but it was left incomplete.
The project, called Bridging The Gap, was too creative and ahead of its time.
Similarities to peace with Egypt Despite two decades of “peace,” it’s hard to see this relationship in the fullest sense of the word.
Instead of creating improved economic and educational cooperation, the Jordan accord was made between politicians, and mirrors the treaty that established Israel’s cold peace with Egypt.
Both are military-diplomatic alliances, serving the security interests of the parties but doing little to share the fruits of peace between their peoples.
Jordanian politicians aren’t allowed to give interviews to Israeli media, as they would immediately spark the ire of the opposition. demic institution, or a member of the parliament to go to the Knesset, he would be denounced by his opponents, and would be charged with being a collaborator in Israel’s occupation policy.
Not nearly enough is being done to calm the rage and negative atmosphere against Israel on the Jordanian street.
“A month ago, following Operation Protective Edge, an Israeli flag was placed at the entrance to the local council of the city of Ma’an in southern Jordan, and everyone who entered there stepped on it,” says Guvrin. “Sometimes you’ll also see burning Israeli flags at demonstrations.
We certainly expect the Jordanian regime to work to eliminate them, as is required by the peace treaty.”
The Temple Mount question The reality is that, even after 20 years, Amman is facing endless challenges in its relations with Jerusalem.
With a majority Palestinian population, surveying the events in Israel – intifadas, war with Lebanon, three wars in the Gaza Strip – does not bode well for a bilateral relationship.
Add this to the tense situation on the Temple Mount and the argument over Jewish prayer, and it’s not hard to imagine which side the Jordanians take.
“The Jordanians repeatedly fall into the trap set by the Wakf Muslim religious trust and the Islamic movement in Israel,” says one Israeli official who works in security on the Temple Mount.
“The High Court of Justice ruled that Jews are allowed to go up to the Temple Mount only during the High Holy Days. These days, the Palestinians are preparing to ambush them on the mount and create a riot. The Jordanians see this as creating damage to the sanctuary, but in reality the permits are depriving the Jews rather than the Muslims.”
The wrath of the Jordanian public in seeing violence used by Israel on the Temple Mount is real. Even the Jordanian government’s anger towards Israel is not artificial, but comes more from a fear of protests and less from perceived blasphemy or desecration of a holy site.
Nevertheless, the deep chasm between the Jewish state and the Palestinians is the least troubling issue facing King Abdullah II and his advisers. It is more important for them to accommodate the vast waves of refugees flooding their country, and deal with a difficult war among two of their three neighbors that is threatening to spill into their territory.
With this, they find a faithful friend in Israel.
Four months ago, in a speech delivered at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted that the IDF will assist if a friend is attacked from the east by Islamic State.
According to Jordanian intelligence estimates, around 1,300 of their citizens have joined Islamic State, dubbed “Jordanian infidels” by Marouf al-Bakhit, former prime minister and former intelligence chief.
“So far, about 200 of them have been killed,” said Bakhit at a lecture in Amman on October 18.
Overall, he said, about 2,000 to 4,000 Jordanians joined the Sunni jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria.
“The worst-case scenario for Jordan,” said the former Jordanian prime minister, “is a continuation of the slaughter in Iraq as it is, the end of which would be the establishment of a Sunni country with Islamic State, which will split up the country. This scenario is dangerous not only for Jordan, but for Arab national security in general.”
Existential threat Anyone who thinks Israel faces an existential threat should take a look its neighbor’s situation.
Jordan is the largest refugee-receiving Arab country. There are the Palestinians of 1948 and 1967, who took refuge in the Hashemite Kingdom; the Palestinians who did so in 1991 after being expelled from Kuwait and its neighbors, after Yasser Arafat joined together with Saddam Hussein; 2003’s wave of Iraqi refugees; and those from Syria today, escaping the country’s civil war.
On top of this, Jordan is a poor country, lacking natural resources or evolving technology; its 1 million refugees – constituting 15 percent of the population – affect an already shaky job market.
In this tangle of economic and security challenges, the king is forced to deal with a veteran Palestinian population on the one hand, and a traditional Beduin population on the other. In light of the Arab Spring, any protests could be seen as a potentially dangerous spark that could ignite a bigger inferno.
“The fact that we [Israel] don’t have a permanent agreement with the Palestinians has a negative impact on our relationship with Jordan,” concludes Guvrin. “It creates tensions and constraints that Jordan and Israel cannot ignore.
“Still, this is a strategic partnership. And under these conditions, the fact that the border between us is quiet speaks for itself.”
■ Translated by Maya Pelleg.