Monday, 27 May 2013

Jordan and Israel – interests in common

The Jordan-Israel connection is on the up-and-up. Strangely enough, one circumstance that has strengthened the somewhat uncertain alliance is the civil war in Syria. It was only a few days ago that a senior Jordanian official, close to King Abdullah, was reported as saying that the two countries are “working as one over Syria”, adding that if the need arose, “of course we will allow Israel to use Jordanian air space for another attack on Syria”. During the course of the interview, he remarked, as if in passing, that Jordan is currently allowing Israel to fly unmanned drones over its air space, as part of Israel’s monitoring of the situation.

The same report indicates that Jordan is “in deep discussions” with Israel over a route map for any Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. No final decision has been taken on the level of Jordan’s co-operation, but it was “near certain” that they would help facilitate any Israeli attack. “Although,” he is reported to have added, “we will of course condemn it publicly.”

Within Jordan, government circles are concerned about the increasingly strident Islamist opposition. For over two years Jordan has experienced almost weekly demonstrations, led primarily by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), demanding an end to steadily declining living standards and calling for the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy.

So far, King Abdullah has effectively contained the internal forces ranged against him while maintaining a “hands-off” attitude to involvement in discussions about the future of the West Bank, but regional developments have forced a reassessment of where Jordan’s real interests lie. Iraq, once US troops have departed, could easily descend into a civil war even more violent than that Syria is currently enduring. The possibility of a chaotic Iraq equalling the chaos in Syria is not one that appeals to Jordan, especially if the outcome in either country is the triumph of jihadist forces in general, or Al-Qaeda in particular. Abdullah is well aware that Al-Qaeda is already trumpeting the existence of an “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”

As for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, now being given a mighty shove forward by energetic US Secretary of State John Kerry, the last thing that Jordan needs is a weak Palestinian state some 15 minutes from Amman that could be overrun by Hamas. They view with apprehension the prospect of a West Bank transferred to the PA which – as Gaza was – is subsequently taken over by Hamas to become a possible base for Iranian Revolutionary Guards and jihadist elements keen on overthrowing not only Israel, but Jordan as well.

And so now Jordan wants a say in what emerges in the West Bank, and Abdullah is asserting a leading role in pushing the peace process forward. Again, there is undoubtedly a community of interests at work. Abdullah is as anxious as Israel that there should be a long-term Israeli security presence along the Jordan River, and that this should be written into any final peace agreement. Israel must insure itself against a jihadist takeover of a newly created Palestine that could result in a viscerally hostile presence in Israel’s very heartland; for Jordan a strong Israeli presence could act to prevent jihadist elements from making their way east, to strengthen the already over-powerful disruptive Islamist presence in the country. So Jordan, like Israel, is intent on ensuring that the border between a sovereign Palestine on the West Bank and Jordan is as secure as possible.

The deal to accord Jordan a leading role in the current push towards peace was signed and sealed at a meeting in Rome, a few weeks ago, between Kerry and Jordanian foreign minister, Nasser Judeh. Afterwards Kerry declared: “It is absolutely critical … everybody understands we are engaged in a serious process to reopen negotiations. Jordan will play a key role in that.”

Accordingly there has been a distinct warming of relations at official level between Jordan and Israel.

For example, a few weeks ago Jordanian Members of Parliament (MPs) passed a resolution by a large majority demanding that the government expel the Israeli ambassador. The reasons given were attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and alleged Israeli attempts to occupy the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The move was pretty quickly shot down under pressure from the palace, the government and security officials. MP Yaya Saoud, who had orchestrated the move, later asked the speaker of the parliament to shelve the motion. The resolution is dead in the water.

Of greater significance is the fact that Israel has recently begun to facilitate Jordanian trade with Iraq and Turkey by allowing goods to be transported by truck via the Jordan river crossing near Beit She'an. It is reported that the Jordanian goods are loaded on to Israeli trucks, taken to Haifa and Ashdod ports and shipped from there. The arrangements, which also operate in the opposite direction, were concluded following secret talks between Israeli, Turkish and Jordanian officials following incidents in which merchandise transported by convoys to and from Turkey to Iraq and Jordan was stolen. The trade, which has been estimated at tens of millions of dollars a month, involves a unique cooperation between the customs authorities and transportation officials in Jordan Iraq and Turkey, and Tax Authority and other government officials in Israel.

And now the latest moves at reactivating the peace process have taken place in Jordan. On Sunday, at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in the King Hussein Convention Center in Amman, John Kerry, Israel’s president Shimon Peres and PA president Mahmoud Abbas are pictured in a three-way handshake sealing their pleasure at the US’s $4 billion economic plan to revitalize the Palestinian economy as a major step towards a resumption of peace negotiations. It is reported that Quartet special envoy, Tony Blair, will head the initiative, with the help of the international business community.

There is undoubtedly a new buzz in the diplomatic theatre, and Jordan’s King Abdullah must be delighted to find Jordan playing a major role, centre stage.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 27 May 2013, as:
"Jordan and Israel - the revival of a new-old alliance"

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 May 2013:

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