My Word: Jordanian rifts, Saudi shifts, Turkish talk and Israel

The Jordanian monarch also realizes that peace with Israel is a strategic asset, even if it doesn’t sit well with all his citizens.

AN IDF soldier patrols the border area between Israel and Jordan at Naharayim, as seen from the Israeli side on October 22. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
AN IDF soldier patrols the border area between Israel and Jordan at Naharayim, as seen from the Israeli side on October 22.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
I was definitely younger in 1994 but apparently I was not naive. An enthusiastic supporter of the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan which was signed that year, I nonetheless warned of the inherent hazards of the clauses in the treaty’s annexes under which Jordan would lease to Israel two parcels of land – at Naharayim/Baqura in the Jordan Valley and Tzofar/Al-Ghamr in the Arava – for a period of 25 years. A quarter of a century is nothing in historical terms. Even on a personal level, it has gone fast.
In those heady days of peace with the neighbor with whom Israel shares its longest border, few thought that further down the line – at the first legal opportunity in fact – the Hashemite Kingdom would announce that it would not be renewing the lease. The romance was long over, but not the relationship. The two countries are like a couple staying together for the sake of the children.
My reservations back then were based more on the Far East than the Middle East – in particular of the Hong Kong example. Leased to Great Britain in 1898 for a 99-year period, which must have seemed an eternity at the time, by 1984, in a very different world, China and the UK agreed on the terms of Hong Kong’s handover to the People’s Republic. The transfer took place in 1997.
By chance, this week, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan arrived in Israel for an official visit marking ever closer ties between the two countries. Meanwhile, the world’s longest sea bridge, connecting mainland China to Macau and Hong Kong, was inaugurated by President Xi Jinping. A bridge over troubled waters that could be used to tighten Beijing’s control over its semi-autonomous territories.
There was a more significant coincidence. The day Jordan’s King Abdullah II chose to make his dramatic announcement coincided with the Hebrew anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, who as prime minister established peace with the Hashemite Kingdom.
When the announcement was made that Israel and Jordan were about to draw up a peace treaty, I was working on a story about the Hamas use of media during the kidnapping of soldier Nachshon Wachsman (who was killed along with IDF Capt. Nir Poraz in a failed rescue attempt). In a sudden change of plan, I instead started researching the reaction of Israeli farmers to the newly announced plan that some of their land would be leased from Jordan and they would, in effect, have to cross the border to cultivate it. As I recall, most considered it a small price to pay for real peace, although in those post-Oslo days when ostensible peace with the Palestinians was blowing up in our faces, they were wary.
The farmers were shocked this week to learn that the arrangement they had come to trust could come to a sudden end in October 2019. For a farmer, one year’s notice is negligible.
Speaking at the memorial for Rabin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would enter into negotiations over the non-renewal of the lease and stressed that the peace agreement is “an important asset... and valuable to both countries.”
The Jordanian monarch also realizes that  peace with Israel is a strategic asset, even if it doesn’t sit well with all his citizens.
Not for the first time, I missed King Hussein, whose genuine belief in peace came across every time I saw him, whether it was at the peace signing ceremony, sharing a joke with Rabin on the lawn of his winter palace in Aqaba, or hosting Israeli parliamentarians and reporters to an iftar meal at a palace in Amman.
It was also evident when he visited the homes of the seven Israeli schoolgirls killed by a Jordanian soldier during a trip to the Island of Peace at Naharayim in 1997. The king knelt before the families, who were sitting on low stools and the ground in accordance with customary Jewish mourning practice.
His brother, always referred to as Crown Prince Hassan, was less emotional but equally focused on bringing the benefits of peace, particularly the economic benefits, to his people. When Hassan was swiftly removed in favor of Abdullah after King Hussein died in February 1999, it was a sign that there was going to be a change in direction.
There is no point in playing “what if?” with history: Nobody knows what would have happened to the Oslo agreements had Rabin not been shot: Would he have continued to act on them or would he have backtracked in the face of the Palestinian violence? Would King Hussein, or Hassan as monarch, have furthered the relationship with Israel or would they have been disappointed by the lack of economic development?
One thing’s for sure, just because he is younger does not make King Abdullah more progressive. I warned for a long time before the civil war broke out in Syria that the fact that Bashar Assad was a British-trained doctor did not make him a liberal leader. He had no qualms at using chemical warfare on his own citizens, as long as they were not from his ruling Alawite tribe.
Similarly, I have often written that Saudi Arabia cannot be considered “moderate” and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is no reformer in the Western sense. Israeli journalists are free to criticize Prime Minister Netanyahu – and for many, Bibi-bashing is their primary vocation. None expects to be abducted and possibly dismembered during a visit to a consulate abroad, like Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (who was no force for reason and democracy, by the way).
The question with Jordan is what now? Jeopardizing the entire peace treaty because of the king’s decision regarding an annexe to the agreement does not seem wise. It should be taken into account that Abdullah is finding himself in an increasingly precarious position with the influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq, growing radical Islamist forces, faltering relations within the Arab world, and, of course, pressure from the Palestinians who comprise the majority of Jordan’s population. King Abdullah, of all people, knows that his rule and kingdom are not threatened by Israel nearly a quarter of a century after the peace agreement was signed. (It’s interesting to note that the king spoke of “Jordanian land, Jordanian interests” when announcing his decision. Only Israel is expected to give land to the Palestinians.)
There is no need for Israel to increase its provision of water to Jordan, but neither should it suddenly cut off the supply. On visits to Amman all those years ago, I noted that the palace was not particularly grand and not surrounded by lush lawns in an effort to avoid offending the ordinary people who were already suffering from water and economic shortages.
But Abdullah II cannot hide his passion for car racing, and his son and heir-apparent Crown Prince Hussein has a similar well-known love of motorcycles. Preventing them from receiving goods such as luxury vehicles via Haifa Port is one step. Tightening control on air space is another.
There is no reason to panic. Israel should proceed with caution. The region is in turmoil, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinian question. Jordan’s control over the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem is challenged by Saudi Arabia; Saudi Arabia’s role as the Sunni super-power is rivaled by Turkey (hence the ongoing Khashoggi affair fallout despite the appalling record of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who jails journalists and dissidents en masse); and Egypt wants its role back as a pivotal regional player. All this against the background of the often underestimated divide between Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries which could end up as influential as the Sunni-Shi’a divide. There’s that Turkish-Saudi rift again.
And without belittling the benefits of growing economic ties with China during the vice president’s visit, I also warn that China is no democracy and should be handled with care.
In short, you can never tell what time will bring: bridges of peace or a bridge too far.
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