Opinion

‘Most Jordanians see annexation as a declaration of war’ –a view from Amman

The Israeli government's annexation plans caused diplomatic waves that the Middle East has not experienced for a long time.
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In May, King Abdullah II of Jordan had warned in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that annexation of the West Bank would lead to a “massive conflict” with his kingdom. He hinted that under these circumstances he would terminate the 1994 peace agreement with Israel: Discreetly sharp words from a national leader, otherwise known for his diplomatic caution.

The Western-oriented Hashemite Kingdom has been regarded for decades as a guarantor of security between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Its rulers guard the border east of the Jordan River against infiltration, and since 1924 they have also guarded the sanctuaries on the Temple Mount/Haram-al-Sharif in East Jerusalem. Jordan’s regional authority, stability and even survival are now at stake. For a cancellation of the peace agreement could mean its bankruptcy, but so could a continuation of the agreement.

On June 18, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi rushed to Ramallah to discuss the situation with the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas. He said that Israel should opt for peace rather than confrontation, and expressed Jordan’s solidarity with the Palestinians.

The Jordanians are unanimously against annexation, but at the same time they are in an insoluble dilemma: the kingdom that annexed the West Bank from 1948-1967 until Israel occupied it after the 1967 war waived all claims in 1988 and signed the Wadi Araba Peace Agreement with Israel in 1994. Even if the Royal House and parliament are now verbally arming themselves against Israel, this is no more than lip service, because the country is dependent on its neighbor: Israel supplies water that Jordan needs to survive. There is also a gas agreement between the two countries. The USA, Israel’s closest ally, is stabilizing Jordan with foreign aid, more than $1.4 billion a year. Jordan cannot risk this support by alienating its donor.

Well over half of all Jordanians are Palestinians; the last count was at 70 percent. This figure could rise even further with the annexation of the Jordan Valley. In the Jordan Valley, which makes up one third of the West Bank, 50,000-65,000 Palestinians would live in enclaves surrounded by Israeli citizens and military but without being citizens themselves. “[T]hey will become illegal aliens in sovereign Israel and under threat of being deported. Of course it will not happen the next day, but in the long run, this is their fate,” says the human rights attorney Michael Sfard. For decades Israeli hardliners have claimed that Palestine already exists: in Jordan. It is therefore in Jordan’s interest to promote Palestinian aspirations for a state in order to preserve Transjordan under Hashemite rule.

The political analyst Amer Al-Sabaileh would have liked his country’s foreign policy to be clearer: “Trump’s administration dictated the unfortunate developments, and Jordan should now position itself decisively as a regional mediator. We need to revise our foreign policy and political strategies to play a constructive role and emphasize the stabilizing advantages that Jordan offers its neighbors, and not least Israel, through cooperation,” he says in a telephone interview.

The annexation scenario is also driving Samar Muhareb. In Jordan’s capital Amman, she worked at full speed with the Global Network of Experts on the Palestinian Question (GNQP), an arm of her non-governmental organization Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD), in order to launch a position paper in time. In its publication of 29 June, the experts warn of the collapse of the regional peace agreements, the end of the two-state solution, of threats to the security of Israelis and Palestinians alike, and of a violation of international law.

“This would also have consequences for the internal security of the EU states,” Muhareb emphasized in an interview. If Israel were to annex 30 percent of the West Bank, as envisaged in the US administration’s “deal of the century”, and the international community were to accept this step, it would indeed be the biggest breach of international law since World War II. It would set a precedent that would shake the international legal order. 

Muhareb fears regression at all levels. The lawyer with Palestinian roots fights for democratic progress in her region and now sees her successes endangered. In the wake of the Arab Spring, she founded her Arab Renaissance group in Amman in 2008. Initially she offered legal advice to Iraqi refugees. But the democracy advocate understood that the concerns of marginalized people and groups require a broader engagement to achieve social justice and political participation. So ARDD expanded its program, and gained influence in the international field of human rights.

The small kingdom east of the Jordan River needs courageous commitment like this for another reason: it bears one of the main burdens of the Syrian war. Nearly one million Syrians are in Jordan, increasing the pressure on the infrastructure and the weak social conditions. Many Syrians are integrated into the labor market, and some work in agriculture in the fertile Jordan Valley. The EU is responding to this commitment with additional financial aid – Germany is one of the biggest supporters alongside the USA. In Jordan, since the wars of 1948 and 1967, over two million Palestinians have been living in ten official United Nations (UNRWA) refugee camps, and the majority of the refugees are socially integrated.

“We have refugees from 56 different nations here, which creates a lot of tension,” says Muhareb. She fears that further irritation could provoke uncontrollable unrest throughout the region, especially in Jordan. 

Jordan has just successfully brought the coronavirus pandemic under control, with hitherto unforeseeable economic consequences, and Israel’s annexation plans are already posing the next threat: “Most Jordanians see this as a declaration of war,” Muhareb says. “Even a symbolic act by the Israeli government would be humiliating for them – what is the point of all this when there are also peaceful solutions to the Palestinian conflict?” The director of ARDD thinks above all of the future of Palestinian youth in Jordan, whose resources cannot be developed, and whose lives would be even more hopeless if there should be a backfall in the economy and democratic rights.

While there is excitement everywhere, Israel’s eloquent Prime Minister Netanyahu suddenly remained silent in the run-up to July 1 – and wins approval in polls. Instead, his coalition partner, alternating Prime Minister Benny Gantz of Blue-White, sent contradictory messages to the Palestinian Authority: sometimes threatening, sometimes appealing. The PA, he said, should finally start negotiating again to prevent the worst from happening. Gantz serves the old familiar narrative, the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. He passed the buck to them as a precautionary measure in case of annexation. Or is Gantz making provisions for the case that Netanyahu decides against annexation at the moment after all, only to blame him and the radical settlers for a historically missed opportunity? 

No matter to what extent and at what point the Israeli government acts, Trump is ennabling the country. “The deal of the century remains its [annexation’s] roadmap. Even if they do not annex the Jordan Valley now, it remains part of their larger plan,” says political expert Jalal Al Husseini in Amman.

While Lex Takkenberg, who has worked for decades for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees, and is one of the co-authors of the ARDD position paper, says, “Ironically, the annexation plans of all things have rekindled the discourse on the one- state solution, a common state for Palestinians and Israelis.”  

Disillusionment is likely to spread throughout the European Union: For too long decision makers have believed in the two-state solution and have not taken the contradictory developments and facts on the ground seriously. 

A shorter version of this article by German author and journalist Alexandra Senfft first appeared in the German weekly Der Freitag, published in Berlin. Translation by Alexandra Senfft