Annexation could be the final blow to the Israel-Jordan relationship

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Foreign Policy  /  May 14, 2020

Twenty-five years ago, the countries signed a peace agreement based on mutual trust. But anger against Israel’s government is rising among Jordanians.

On April 30, Jordan’s foreign ministry announced that Israeli farmers would no longer be allowed to work their fields in an enclave of southern Jordan, putting a discordant end to an arrangement long seen as a symbol of the peace agreement signed between the countries in 1994.

According to that agreement, Israel returned to Jordan two small areas of land along their common border held by Israel since 1948. As a gesture of good will, Jordan granted Israel a 25-year lease on the land. On the 250-acre area at the confluence of the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers in the north, Israel developed the Island of Peace park, visited by tens of thousands of tourists each year. Jordan demanded that land in November 2019, agreeing to postpone the return of the other area farther south until now.

In March, Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz warned that relations between the countries had reached their “lowest level.” The situation is still likely to get worse. Under the recently agreed unity coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opponent-turned-deputy Benny Gantz, Israel could move forward with plans to annex the Jordan Valley. Annexation would dash any hopes for peace with the Palestinians, on which the Israeli-Jordanian relationship relies. The situation is compounded by U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which includes a call for annexation.

The historic 1994 agreement between Israel and Jordan is formally still in place. But Jordan’s refusal to extend the lease on the two enclaves, along with the fact that neither side held any ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the accord, indicates just how far Israeli-Jordanian relations have deteriorated.

The 1994 peace agreement formally put an end to a 46-year state of war. Both Jordan’s monarch at the time, King Hussein, and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin regarded it as central to their foreign policies, and their grand gestures set a tone of mutual trust. When King Hussein flew back to Amman after the second ceremony, an honor squad of Israeli fighter jets accompanied his plane as it crossed over Jerusalem’s Old City. When a Jordanian soldier crossed the border and killed seven Israeli schoolchildren in the Island of Peace in 1997, the king flew to Israel, visited their families, and humbly asked for forgiveness.

With the signing of the accords, Israel had struck an agreement with a second Arab nation, after signing a peace deal with Egypt in 1979. Israelis soon flocked to Jordan’s tourist sites and conceived of joint business ventures. In contrast, Jordan’s public viewed the agreements as a necessary evil at best that promised security, a solution to Jordan’s chronic water shortages, stronger ties with the United States, and potential economic advantages such as free trade zones.

But much has changed. Rabin was assassinated just one year after the accords were signed. King Hussein never formed the same warm relationship with Netanyahu, who took office in 1996. Netanyahu and Jordanian King Abdullah II, who succeeded his father, have met publicly on occasion but issued no joint statements. Israel and Jordan settled into a cold peace, with no high-level strategic talks in over a decade. Connections are maintained at a tactical level by midlevel diplomats, advisors, and security and economic personnel. Describing the status of Jordan-Israel relations, Abdullah said in a recent interview, “The rhetoric coming out of Israel is creating tremendous concern. … [The Israelis] are moving off into a new direction that can only create more instability.”

This direction includes the lack of progress on a Palestinian-Israeli agreement, the unqualified support provided to Israel by the Trump administration, and the failure of joint economic projects. The Trump administration is aggressively pro-Israel, including unequivocal support for the right-wing Likud government. Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, in violation of the Oslo Accords, and his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan was written with little or no consultation with the Jordanians or the Palestinians.

In Jordan, Israel’s relations with and treatment of the Palestinians are viewed as a domestic issue.

More than half of Jordan’s citizens are of Palestinian origin, and more than 2 million are registered as refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and their descendants. Israel recently approved plans to build what former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett calls the “sovereignty road,” which would bisect the West Bank to allow a quick route from Jerusalem to Jewish settlements and prevent the future establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state. The plan makes it even more difficult for Abdullah to justify the relationship with Israel to Jordan’s citizens.

The Haram al-Sharif site in Jerusalem’s Old City—which is home to the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque complex—is the third-holiest site in Islam. Known to Israelis as the Temple Mount, the site is a perennial source of tension. In the 1994 accords, Israel promised to respect Jordan’s historic role in the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem. Jews are permitted to visit the Haram al-Sharif but are not allowed to pray there; they are restricted to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, which lies beneath the al-Aqsa complex. But Israeli religious hard-liners have demanded a greater presence on the Mount, including the right to visit regularly and to pray.

Trump’s plan calls for maintaining the status quo—but it also contradicts itself, stating that “People of every faith should be permitted to pray” at the site. The coronavirus pandemic led to rare cooperation between Israel and the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that manages Islamic holy sites in Israeli territory on behalf of Jordan, allowing the Haram al-Sharif to close down to slow contagion. The move was a rare exception: Most interactions surrounding the site have been tense, especially since 2017, when Palestinian gunmen killed two Israeli police officers at the site.

Among the Jordanian public, anger against Israel is rising. “Israel is led by right-wing nationalist extremists and does not respect the rights of the Palestinians or of any other country. The Israelis take us for granted, and they are arrogant,” Omar, a Jordanian journalist who asked to be identified only by his first name, told Foreign Policy. “The relationship feels like a long series of broken promises.”

The sentiment is echoed by Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan. “Opposition to the peace treaty serves as a glue for the opposition’s disparate components, and as a socially and politically acceptable vehicle for criticizing the ruling family,” he told journalists last year. Jordan, however, is bound to the 1994 peace agreements by its own financial and security concerns. Because of its small size, lack of resources, large refugee population, and chronic debt, Jordan is highly dependent on international financial aid, especially from the United States.

But many of the promises that followed the 1994 agreement haven’t come to fruition. Then, Israel pledged to build a canal to transfer water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to ease Jordan’s frequent water shortages. It subsequently became clear that the was too expensive to be feasible. Another plan to establish a joint industrial area in Israel as a free trade zone has also failed to move forward, although Israel does allow Jordan to use the port of Haifa for access the Mediterranean Sea.

Jordan’s national electricity company has said that Israel is the “only available source” for natural gas, and the countries recently finalized a 15-year import deal that should stabilize energy prices and help to reduce Jordan’s chronic budget deficit. Despite the apparent advantages to the Israel-Jordan pipeline, there were large-scale demonstrations in Amman against the deal. On Jan. 19, Jordan’s parliament approved a draft law to ban the import of Israeli gas, and one member even called on Jordanian citizens to blow up the pipelines that transfer the gas.

At the same time, Israel provides crucial intelligence to Jordan’s government, which fears regional instability and domestic insurgency.

“Jordan is in an untenable position,” said Ksenia Svetlova, a former member of the Israeli Knesset and an expert in Israeli-Arab affairs. “The king is torn in many different directions. He needs American financial support, despite the administration’s one-sided support for Israel. He needs Israel for security, despite the hatred for Israel on the street.”

Israeli experts say that Israel relies on Jordan, too. The 1994 agreement means that Israel has a buffer zone with Iraq and Syria. “Israel’s security border is not on the east with Jordan, but hundreds of miles farther to the east,” Nimrod Novik, a former senior foreign-policy advisor to the Israeli government, said at a press briefing in Jerusalem in January. If the regime in Jordan collapsed, he added, the cost to Israel’s security would be “unimaginable.”

So both Israel and Jordan have an interest in maintaining the agreements, but the deteriorating situation means that the resumption of high-level strategic dialogue isn’t likely, according to Svetlova. “The new Israeli government is not likely to be any less hard-line than the previous one and, with Trump’s support, it is likely to maintain the same policies, or at a minimum the same rhetoric,” she said. Gantz, who will replace Netanyahu as prime minister after 18 months, has frequently stated his opposition to annexation. But he has little leverage. The coalition agreement signed on April 21 includes a provision that allows Netanyahu to bring an annexation bill before the Knesset, where it will have a majority.

The ball is in Israel’s court, since it is Israel that has changed its political direction, Svetlova said. “Israeli policymakers have to ask themselves what is more important: sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem and annexation of the territories, or our vital interests in maintaining our relationship with Jordan,” she said.

Eetta Prince-Gibson is the Israel editor for Moment magazine, the former editor in chief of the Jerusalem Report, and a regular contributor to Haaretz+61J, and other international publications