The Palestinian hot potato

Jordan and Israel’s common fear of being overwhelmed by Palestinians led them to covert agreements. Today, this shared fear is driving them apart.

Barak and Abdullah meet (photo credit: Ariel Harmoni, Defense Ministry)
Barak and Abdullah meet
(photo credit: Ariel Harmoni, Defense Ministry)
In the early 1960s, when Jordan’s King Hussein was dealing with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in Egypt, which was bent on exporting its revolutionary fervor, the young king published an autobiography entitled Uneasy Lies the Head. Taking his cue from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV (“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”), Hussein’s characterization of his predicament could apply today to his son and heir, King Abdullah II.
Egypt is once again the source of inspiration for revolutionary fervor. Now, however, the revolutionary spirit is being generated by the masses, who seek to overthrow the regime built by Nasser and his successors, while Abdullah braces to face the fallout from Cairo in the streets of Amman.
Emboldened by the protest movements sweeping the Arab streets from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen, demonstrators led by the Muslim Brotherhood have taken to Jordan’s streets in recent days, demanding political reform and focusing on reducing the power of the monarchy. The intensity of the protests do not compare with the whirlwind that has shaken Egypt to the core, but it is surely cause for concern for Abdullah and his new government. This is especially true because of the unsavory combination of potentially destabilizing trends that have simultaneously come to fruition in recent years.
LIKE OTHER Arab states, Jordan faces structural economic difficulties, high levels of unemployment and poverty, recently exacerbated by rising food and fuel prices. What makes matters worse from the regime’s point of view is that in recent years, the original Jordanians of the East Bank – the long-standing bedrock of the regime – have expressed serious misgivings about domestic politics.
As of the 1970s, a functional split appeared whereby the original Jordanians were the unchallenged masters of political influence, while the Palestinians – about half (maybe more) of the population – dominated the economy and the private sector. When economic troubles forced the government to reduce spending, the original Jordanians generally suffered the consequences more severely than their Palestinian compatriots, who were far less dependent on government largesse and jobs.
Over the years, a militant and influential ultranationalist trend has emerged, devoted to the eradication of Palestinian influence and of real and perceived economic advantage. In the long run, it sought the emigration of as many Palestinians as possible to a future state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, and to Israel proper. Efforts by the king to introduce political reforms were often stymied by the conservative East Bank elite, who feared that a more liberal regime would allow for greater integration of Palestinians into the kingdom’s politics, at its expense.
At the same time, expectations from the peace with Israel have remained largely unfulfilled. That peace was not a panacea for Jordan’s economic difficulties. But, even more disturbing for the Jordanians, Israel and the Palestinians failed in their endeavor to transform the Oslo Accords into a final agreement.
OVER THE past 25 years, the Jordanians have steadily developed an obsessive fear of the “alternative homeland conspiracy,” and a vital interest in the creation of a Palestinian state. In their opinion, if no Palestinian state comes into being in the West Bank and Gaza, a confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians would culminate in the migration or expulsion of Palestinians to Jordan. In this nightmare scenario, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, but the Jordanians would be the losers.
After the failure of the Camp David talks and the second Palestinian intifada, Jordanian fear of this nightmare scenario resurfaced as if the peace treaty had never been signed. In 2003, the US invasion of Iraq and the consequent threat of Iraqi disintegration, coupled with growing Iranian influence in Iraq and the region, severely compounded the Jordanians’ sense of strategic suffocation. They now found themselves between two poles of regional instability, with the chaos of Iraq to the east and the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum to the west. This was the kind of predicament they had certainly not expected after making peace with Israel, and has been made infinitely worse by the tremors shaking much of the Arab world.
One of the main reasons for the failure of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is the inability of the parties to agree on the “right of return.”
Israel’s position has been stridently condemned by the Jordanians, who again saw the specter of refugee resettlement in Jordan as the forerunner to the “alternative homeland” scenario. Not only was the Israeli position an obstacle to an agreement with the Palestinians, they believed, but it threatened to permanently saddle Jordan with a huge Palestinian population. Thus, the positions of Jordan and Israel are diametrically opposed on an issue that both sides regard as existential. It was the Jordanians and the Lebanese who were responsible for adding to the Arab Peace Initiative, in 2002 and again in 2007, the absolute “rejection of all forms of [refugee] resettlement,” which made the initiative impossible for Israel to accept.
In the past, Jordan’s and Israel’s common fear of being overwhelmed by Palestinians led them into covert strategic understandings. Today this shared fear is driving them apart. Surveying an increasingly unstable Arab world from Amman, and considering the implications any regional upheaval might have for its domestic politics, one may conclude that the Hashemite crown is “uneasy,” to say the least.
The writer is a senior fellow and former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. This article was first published by and is reprinted with permission.