My Word: Looking to the East Bank

One reason that the idea of Palestinian statehood is fading is the probable succession crisis in the post-Mahmoud Abbas era.

Jordan's King Abdullah meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Royal Palace in Amman November 12 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jordan's King Abdullah meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Royal Palace in Amman November 12
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"The options are only a two-state solution, or a one-state solution that will threaten the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel. What other options are there?” This to-be-or-not-to-be, existential question, with only slight variations, seems to be everywhere lately: in speeches, interviews, news stories and opinion pieces, and across the social media.
Some ask it rhetorically, with a sigh and a sense of despair; others can’t imagine a different scenario but are genuinely interested in hearing of another possibility.
The question-turned-statement- turned-self-fulfilling-prophecy has dominated discourse for decades now. But particularly with the dawn of an era in which the US administration is eager to change the course taken by Barack Obama, some bold voices can be heard thinking outside the box.
One of them is Hillel Frisch, a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, who this week talked to the Jerusalem Press Club in its quaint old stone building in the capital’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood.
Frisch didn’t profess to have all the answers, but he offered a fresh look at what is often referred to as the “Jordanian option” – that instead of fixating on the creation of an independent Palestinian state, we should be looking to expand the Palestinian links to the Hashemite Kingdom, with which the Palestinians share a language, religion and culture.
It is to a certain extent a return to an old approach.
In answer to a question, Frisch acknowledged my feeling that the Oslo Accords torpedoed the Madrid process, in which the Palestinians were part of the Jordanian delegation.
Like many international-relations experts, he sees the benefits of having states, which in most cases have an innate stability that other entities lack. But there are tremendous problems with creating a Palestinian state, most of them being of the Palestinians’ own making, he noted.
“We are entering almost the centenary of the failed [Palestinian] national movement,” Frisch said. “Probably the main reason for that is terrible leaders.”
As he sees it, the Palestinians missed two major opportunities. The first, in 1947, was with the partition of India and Pakistan.
“Israel was No. 3 and the Palestinians could have been No. 4, but they blew it,” he said.
“There was also the wave of state creation in the 1990s with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia. Between 1990 and 1995, 26 states were created. The Palestinians once again blew it.”
Many would argue that the infamous “Three Noes” following the 1967 Six Day War was another example of what the late foreign minister Abba Eban so memorably summed up as the Palestinian propensity “to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” In the Khartoum Declaration, the leaders of the Arab world declared there would be “no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, and no recognition of Israel.”
It took the additional losses of the Yom Kippur War to persuade first Egypt, and later Jordan, that armed conflict was not going provide the gains they sought.
The Oslo process was part of the window of opportunity that opened in the 1990s, according to Frisch.
“It was no coincidence that it took place at that time,” he stated.
It was supposed to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian partition, he noted, but it failed, and instead created an inter-Palestinian partition, “two statelets” as it has been called, with the Palestinian Authority in shaky control of the West Bank and Hamas ruling Gaza.
These cannot be welded easily, in Frisch’s opinion, as one is a secular entity and the other a theocracy.
One reason that the idea of Palestinian statehood is fading is the probable succession crisis in the post-Mahmoud Abbas era. It seems likely that the West Bank will disintegrate further into local fiefdoms, with places such as Hebron, ruled by Hamas, in conflict with largely secular Ramallah.
“The Palestinian Authority exists by dint of Israeli bayonets,” Frisch said, adding that it was dependent on Israeli security forces to keep Hamas at bay and keep down the terrorism that threatens the PA itself.
THERE IS a new situation brought about by the election of US President Donald Trump; the weakening of the PA and of the post-Brexit EU that largely financed it; and at the same time the growing threat from Islamists and Iran. A new situation brings about new dynamics and needs. Mindlessly mouthing the “two-state or apartheid one-state” mantra is not the answer.
One option occasionally heard is turning the Palestinian autonomous areas’ status into something akin to that of Puerto Rico. Frisch is concentrating on the Jordanian option – basically, that a unified Jordanian state would incorporate the Areas A and B, those currently under full or partial PA control.
How to get the Jordanians and the Palestinians to accept it is the multimillion-dollar question. Not surprisingly, Frisch sees a large part of the answer lying in financial and economic incentives. (This, too, could appeal to the business-oriented Trump mindset, looking to close “a deal.”)
As Frisch envisions it, the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank (unlike other Jordanian citizens) would have the right of employment in Israel. Another benefit to the Palestinians would be an export opening to the Arab world, whereas today, according to Frisch and the figures he presented, the Jordanian and Egyptian business groups that want to capture the markets themselves largely block such exports.
Having Jordanian citizenship would also give the Palestinians benefits.
There are two pieces of evidence that Jordan is open to political opportunities, Frisch claimed.
The first is that throughout the past 25 years since Jordan announced the severance of ties with the West Bank, Amman has refrained from amending its 1952 constitution, which enshrines a Hashemite Kingdom that unites the two banks of the Jordan River. The second is the trial balloons King Abdullah II releases from time to time. Last May, for example, former Jordanian prime minister Abd al-Salam Majali met 100 notables in Nablus.
A boost in international aid to Amman would be a major incentive to the Jordanians, he noted.
The Palestinian Authority has absorbed a lot of the international funds that once went to Jordan. According to Frisch, financial aid, particularly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, would help stabilize Jordan and serve to reciprocate for the American security umbrella, an idea that Trump has stressed.
Israeli strategy, Frisch said, needs to be “to give [the Palestinians] the feeling that the longer they delay, the more they have to lose, and the Jordanian option is what they have to consider.”
Frisch is neither a prophet predicting that the Jordanian option will eventually prevail, nor a prophet of doom. My major reservation is that I have yet to find a Jordanian who openly supports this idea or is even open to considering it, perhaps due to the fear that instead of strengthening the Hashemite Kingdom, West Bank Palestinians would weaken it. The Jordanians and Palestinians have not forgotten “Black September” in 1970, when King Hussein expelled the PLO, fearing he was about to be overthrown.
The idea is not perfect, but it points in a positive direction. The West Bank of the Jordan has a much larger eastern side. Looking to the East, where the sun rises, could lead to a brighter future – perhaps even the dawn of a new era of regional cooperation.