Caught at the crossroads

Washington Watch: It is in Israel’s interest to help Jordan resolve issues like water and energy shortages.

Amman, Joradn_311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Amman, Joradn_311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
The tectonic plates shifting across the Middle East are sending tremors through the royal palace in Amman, Jordan, where the king faces growing pressures from his traditional power base among the Beduin tribes as well as the increasingly assertive Islamists.
In this year of the Arab awakening, more than a thousand demonstrations have taken place around Jordan, most of them peaceful, demanding speedy democratic reforms, an empowered and elected parliament and an intensified effort to combat corruption.
The largest gatherings were in Amman and organized by the Muslim Brotherhood. In recent months the Islamists, who dominate the political opposition, have been hardening their tone, with one leader of the Islamic Action Front warning of “a fierce popular intifada.”
King Abdullah II, who came to power following the death of his father, King Hussein, in 1999, has been trying to avoid the mistakes of other Arab leaders and stay ahead of the protesters by meeting with them, instituting some reforms and promising others, and even talking about a transition to a constitutional monarchy.
The king’s traditional power base, mostly tribal groups in the south, are also protesting, saying they feel discriminated against and harmed by the king’s economic policies.
But it is the Islamists, and particularly the Brotherhood, that concern him most because of their following in Jordan and their ties to extreme religious movements throughout the region.
Jordan sits at a strategic crossroads, with Syria in chaos to the north; Iraq, still feeling its way after the American exit, to the east along with Iran; a nervous Saudi Arabia and tumultuous Egypt to the south, and Israel and Palestine to the west.
“If Jordan crumbles as a buffer state, the whole Middle East will change radically,” said Dan Schueftan of the University of Haifa.
AN ISLAMIST takeover in Jordan would be “a strategic nightmare for Israel,” said Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli cabinet minister. It would mean “a continuum of Islamic extremism from the Allenby Bridge to the mountains of Afghanistan.”
Abdullah went to Ramallah earlier this month to talk to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about resuming negotiations with Israel. The king reportedly told the PLO leader to drop his preconditions and return to the peace table, as urged by the International Quartet and the United States.
The peace process is both a necessity and an opportunity for the king. He fears the continuing stalemate will only benefit the Islamists and extremists on both sides. Getting the parties back to the table is also an opportunity for him to fill the vacuum left by the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, who had been the interlocutor between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Like Abbas, Abdullah does not trust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and refuses to meet with him, so last week he received President Shimon Peres in Amman to discuss resuming talks.
“The absence of any negotiations may drift into violent friction between Israel and the Palestinians with dire consequences for all concerned, Jordan included,” according to Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan.
The Muslim Brothers are rapidly gaining influence and power throughout the region. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is expected to have a major role in leading a post-Assad Syria, and the Egyptian brothers have scored significant victories in the voting there in recent weeks.
“Egyptian pressures to effect Hamas-PLO reconciliation and Islamist pressures inside Jordan are causing considerable unease in Amman,” according to Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher.
Hamas, which Abdullah expelled in 1999, has fled Damascus and reportedly wants to return to Amman, but that seems unlikely. The United States and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization and a potential threat to the king as well as to Israel.
Israel wants – and needs – a stable Jordan under the Hashemites and would like to strengthen strategic and other ties, but the king reportedly feels little is possible before Israel and the Palestinians make peace. The lack of progress on that front also seriously undermines public support for Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel. A majority of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, as is the queen.
Mistrust of Israel runs high in Jordan. To help allay some of those fears, the Netanyahu government sent a strong signal of support to the king and a warning to right-wing Israeli extremists who claim Jordan is Palestine. Significantly, the message was delivered by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. He said such talk is harmful to Israel’s security interests and “Jordan is a stabilizing factor in the region in terms of what takes place in other states. Talk about Jordan as a Palestinian state runs contrary to the Israeli interests and reality.”
To help make sure the earth-shaking events in the Middle East don’t topple the Hashemite kingdom, Ephraim Sneh said, Israel must move decisively to prevent domestic deterioration by helping Jordan solve its major shortages of water and energy, by reviving peace talks and by recognizing its commitment to honor Jordan’s role in protecting Jerusalem’s holy places. That is critical if the Islamists are to be denied an issue to exploit for a possible government takeover.
The writer is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He writes regularly for Anglo-Jewish newspapers and is the former legislative director of AIPAC and Washington representative of the World Jewish Congress.