What will the next 20 years of Jordan-Israel relations look like?

The peace agreement, signed in the Arava 20 years ago on October 26, 1994, cemented perhaps the closest relationship between Israel and any Arab state.

US PRESIDENT Bill Clinton applauds as prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein shake hands after signing a peace treaty between the countries in the Arava 20 years ago (photo credit: REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Bill Clinton applauds as prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein shake hands after signing a peace treaty between the countries in the Arava 20 years ago
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Despite some rough riding and bumps in the road, the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan has served the interests of both countries, as well as the US, but the question is whether King Abdullah II’s regime will last even five or 10 more years.
The peace agreement, signed in the Arava 20 years ago on October 26, 1994, cemented perhaps the closest relationship between Israel and any Arab state. This, despite the fact that the Jordanian population, which is mostly Palestinian, loathes Israel.
Jordanian views were adequately summed up in the front-page leading story in Sunday’s Jordanian newspaper Al-Arab Al-Yawm: “Twenty Years of ‘Odious Peace’ with Israel.”
Israel’s ambassador to Jordan, Daniel Nevo, suggested that King Abdullah’s recent allegation that Israel kills Arab children en masse stems from pressure by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt.
Nevo offered the commentary in an interview that aired Friday on Army Radio. Abdullah leveled the accusation at Israel last week during a meeting with Jordanian lawmakers “If, as we are fighting radical Islamist groups as a coalition, they are slaughtering children in Gaza and Jerusalem every five minutes, then it’s impossible,” said Abdullah, who usually employs less inflammatory language when speaking about Israel.
“The king is being attacked by countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and even Egypt on how the Israelis are allegedly disrespecting him,” Nevo told Army Radio when asked to comment on Abdullah’s use of harsh language.
“They don’t see the whole picture,” He said. “The violence at the Temple Mount puts Abdullah in an embarrassing situation each time anew.”
“People on the Jordanian street, they don’t watch Israeli television. They watch Al Jazeera. So how do you expect him to celebrate the anniversary?” Nevo asked.
Dore Gold, a foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, as well as the former Israeli ambassador to the UN, told The Jerusalem Post, “Having been a frequent visitor to Amman since 1994, all I can say is that Jordan’s leadership, especially King Abdullah, have skillfully led their kingdom through one regional challenge after another.”
“The fact that Jordan has become a home for waves of Arab refugees, including those who arrived recently from Iraq and Syria, should not be seen as a source of Jordanian instability or weakness, but rather Jordanian confidence and strength,” Gold said.
David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former official dealing with the Middle East for the Pentagon, told the Post that “no one thought that Jordan would be around for long when it was created in the 1940s,” but “the Kingdom has proven remarkably resilient – and it continues to be so.”
Schenker wrote a study titled “Twenty Years of Israeli-Jordanian Peace: A Brief Assessment,” published by the Washington Institute on Thursday, stating, “This persistent, Islamist-tinged opposition has made it politically difficult for the palace to move forward with a broad range of political and economic initiatives.”
“In addition to balking at mutually beneficial water sharing proposals, these opponents reject the impending purchase of Israeli gas – a deal that could provide the kingdom with energy security for decades to come,” said Schenker.
And despite the benefits the peace treaty gave Jordan, it “has not been able to achieve a dramatic improvement in Jordan’s economy, which remains the Achilles’ heel of the kingdom’s stability,” he added.
Asked if the $15 billion gas deal, which includes a pipeline, will give Israel leverage over Jordan, Schenker responded, “I don’t see the gas deal as leverage,” but “the decision brings Israel and the kingdom closer.”
“Jordan has made a wise strategic decision to align with Israel and has gained energy security. The absence of a cheap and reliable source of energy has been a big problem for Jordan in recent years,” he said.
“This will change the dynamic,” noted Schenker, adding, “It will make Israel even more invested in the kingdom’s survival – if that was possible.”
Kirk Sowell, principal of Uticensis Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm, and the editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, told the Post that his perception of the risk to the Jordanian regime is similar to the assessment he made earlier in July.
“Islamic State remains a security threat, but is in no remote regard a threat in terms of toppling the government,” said Sowell.
In July, Sowell told the Post, “Anyone who thinks ISIS – now just IS, the Islamic State – is going to overrun the Jordanian military doesn’t know what is going on.
“The Jordanians may be playing it up to get more aid, they do that a lot,” he said.
On predicting the durability of the king’s government, Sowell said it could not survive economically without foreign aid. “Everyone is aware of this. There is of course discontent that continues, but no broad-based pressure for radical change.”
Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, told the Post that in a region undergoing great upheavals, “it is difficult to speak of Jordan’s future in 20 years.”
“Jordan’s stability and security are foremost Israeli interests,” he said, adding that “Israel should lend quiet, behind-the-scenes support to the regime, but stay out of domestic developments beyond that.”
“Our record of intervening in domestic Arab politics is not highly encouraging,” he said. “Any overt, or even suspected involvement, makes us toxic for the other actors involved.”
However, Freilich foresees that new possibilities could come out of Jordan’s downfall: a possible resolution to the Palestinian issue, as the country could become the de facto Palestinian state.
Asked about recent harsh rhetoric coming from the king, Freilich does not dismiss it as mere talk, as there is “real anger and frustration toward Israel in Jordan, the Arab world, and beyond.”
Prof. Hillel Frisch of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University told the Post that while it is difficult to predict the future, people were forever predicting the fall of the Hashemite Kingdom.
“And lo and behold in the so-called Arab Spring it was the ‘republican’ regimes that disintegrated or are fighting for their lives,” said Frisch.
The king has three things going for him, he explained. First, the worse the chaos is in other Arab countries, the more the people will support the king even though many criticize his rule.
The second factor is Israel’s support, and the third is that of the US.
“I hope the king will have the sagacity to rule and not be led: to make his countrymen understand that they do not have to love Israel, but recognize that for its own reasons, it has a vested interest in the welfare of the Jordanian state and its people.”
“He must then reign in his condemnation of Israel lest Israelis take the alternative strategic route that Jordan become Palestine,” Frisch said. “I believe Israel will help out the king as long as he is in control,” but if he ends up losing control to Islamic State, “Israel will sit defensively on the Jordan with occasional assaults against the fundamentalists.”
“Israel learned from Lebanon and the US lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan that one must never get bogged down in quicksand and quicksand is exactly the appropriate metaphor when you don’t have a strategic center of power to help,” explained Frisch.
“If the US couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty on the wall in Iraq neither can Israel in Jordan,” he concluded.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Shillman- Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum who closely follows Islamist opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, told the Post, “My long-term projection on the stability of the Jordanian regime in 20 years is quite pessimistic, as I feel more generally about the Middle East as a whole, with the exception of Israel.”
As for the threat from Islamic State, Tamimi asserts that the threat mainly comes from domestic supporters of the group, like in the southern city of Ma’an.
On Jordan’s border with Iraq, Islamic State is still profiting by taxing Jordanian truckers passing through its territory and into Iraq’s Anbar province and even to other government- controlled areas, he said.
“So it is not yet in Islamic State’s interest to attempt to invade Jordanian territory from the Iraqi side of the border.”
And from the Syrian side of the border with Jordan, the terrorist group “lacks the capacity to launch incursions.”
JTA contributed to this report.