Why Jordanian people are protesting pact with UAE, Israel

Ali Abunimah & Tamara Nassar

The Electronic Intifada  /  December 1, 2021

Thousands of Jordanians demonstrated in Amman on Friday against a deal that will supposedly see Jordan send electricity to Israel in exchange for desalinated seawater.

This followed protests by students on campuses across the country opposing the kingdom’s formal ties and close relations with Israel, which many see as an outright betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

The deal, to which the United Arab Emirates is also a party, appears to be more of a political effort to cement Jordan firmly within the so-called Abraham Accords, rather than providing the touted clean energy and water benefits to either side.

The only real winner, politically speaking, is likely to be Israel.

Social media users last week circulated mobile phone videos of protests at the University of Jordan, Yarmouk University, Al-Zaytoonah University and the Hashemite University.

Jordanian authorities cracked down on protesters, arresting dozens and physically assaulting some, according to the human rights group Euro-Med Monitor, which called for the unconditional release of all detainees.

Jordan as Israel’s “strategic depth”

The message on the street was clear: Despite their government’s efforts to warm up its “cold peace” with Israel, the Jordanian public remains adamantly opposed.

The latest protests were sparked by a memorandum of understanding signed on 22 November by the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Israel.

It calls for building a solar farm funded by the Emirates on Jordanian soil to provide electricity to Israel. In exchange, Israel will study building a desalination plant on the Mediterranean coast to provide water to Jordan.

Yet on top of the objections to normalization with Israel as a matter of principle, there are strong reasons to doubt the project’s technical feasibility and environmental sustainability.

But there are no doubts about its political implications. It ropes Jordan into the Abraham Accords – the framework for the normalization agreements brokered in 2020 by the Trump administration between Israel, the UAE and several other Arab regimes.

The memorandum signed this month states that the UAE, Jordan and Israel, as well as NEPCO, the Jordanian national electricity provider, and two Israeli companies, “may be potential project stakeholders” in the solar farm.

But all of the solar farm’s energy would be exported to Israel – where it would almost certainly help supply Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Jordan has had its own peace deal with Israel since 1994, but leaders in Amman may fear missing out on the vast economic deals that will supposedly accompany the new wave of normalization with Tel Aviv.

Analysts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an influential Israel lobby think tank, earlier this year called on the Biden administration to “guarantee that Jordan benefits directly from the new dynamics and opportunities created by the Abraham Accords.”

“Jordan serves as Israel’s strategic depth to the east, and its cooperation with Jerusalem is a key factor in any ‘by, with, and through’ US defense strategy in the Middle East,” the Israel lobby analysts observed.

The US is backing the new electricity-for-water pact, whose goal appears to be making Jordan even more dependent on Israel and Washington.

“Stakeholders” in the water desalination project will supposedly include the Jordanian ministry of water, the Israeli ministry of energy, and the UAE, according to the memorandum.

But Israel would almost certainly not give either Jordan or the UAE any real control over such a “strategic” resource if the plant were ever built.

It would simply become another tool for Israel to pressure and blackmail Jordan, as it has habitually done with water supplies from the Jordan River.

Expensive and inefficient

The details of the project will be finalized by the end of 2022, according to the memorandum.

It’s being termed “the largest deal ever” between Tel Aviv and Amman by one Israel lobby group.

But there are reasons for skepticism about its stated aims. Israel already has so much surplus electricity and gas production that prices there are falling.

And if Israel wanted to increase its use of renewables, like solar energy, it has plenty of space to build solar farms within the boundaries it controls without needing to expand into Jordan.

Israel’s feigned interest in renewable and sustainable energy is belied by its habitual seizure or destruction of solar panels used by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

There is also good reason to doubt that the desalination plant will ever be built – at least not for Jordan’s use.

If Israel’s goal – as the memorandum of understanding claims – is to increase its use of renewable energy, building another desalination plant contradicts that aim.

Desalination remains an expensive and difficult process.

It requires vast amounts of energy – typically from fossil fuels – and creates major environmental hazards, including increasing the salinity and temperature of seawater and harming marine life.

Far from being a panacea, desalination has proven costly and unsustainable for countries in the region far richer than Jordan, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“The countries are burning increasing amounts of natural gas, and sometimes oil, to run the plants,” The Arizona Republic reported in 2019, citing Laurent Lambert, a public policy professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

This translates into “more emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.”

Despite the persistent problems with the technology, Israel has built a number of desalination plants and its greenwashing propaganda touts them as a solution to regional water shortages.

In reality, Israel’s “desalination euphoria” is grossly overblown, Alon Tal, chair of the department of public policy at Tel Aviv University, told The Times of Israel in 2018.

The country still faces massive long-term water problems that desalination cannot solve, while damaging natural resources.

Ignoring public sentiment

Jordan and Israel also have a poor track record of bringing their normalization schemes to fruition.

For decades, Israel and Jordan have talked about an environmentally devastating joint project to build a canal from the Red Sea that would replenish the Dead Sea while generating electricity. It has gone nowhere.

There were also plans for a joint airport straddling the Jordan-Israel border in the south. That never got built either.

Instead, Israel angered Amman by building its own airport which Jordan says threatens its airspace and sovereignty.

The latest deal has nonetheless caused outrage in Jordan, where the population generally opposes ties with Israel.

Lawmakers are demanding that it be debated in parliament.

Jordan is already spending billions of dollars buying gas from Israel under a United States-backed agreement that is set to last through at least 2035.

But despite strong internal opposition from the public and parliament since the gas deal was signed in 2014, the monarchy’s decisionmakers paid no heed to the deal’s unpopularity and moved ahead with it anyway. Jordan is now in its second year of importing gas from Israel.

The UAE-Israel-Jordan deal comes only weeks after the revelation that in October, Jordan secretly sent warplanes – apparently for at least the second time since 2019 – to train with the Israeli air force.

This came just months after fighter jets deployed by Tel Aviv massacred entire families in Gaza.

The relatively muted response from the Jordanian public in October may have given Amman the confidence that it could get away with doing almost anything it wanted with Israel without having to worry about a backlash.

The latest deal may be a turning point.

Aiding in a war crime ?

Professor Saleh al-Naami, an expert on Israel based in Gaza, says that if the deal were implemented, Jordan would supply electricity to Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank.

“The project will create an environment that encourages Judaization of the West Bank,” Al-Naami tweeted.

“The Jordanian desert will not only be used to generate electricity for settlements,” the political scientist said.

“Israel may also be able to transfer some of its polluting industrial infrastructure to the Jordanian desert under the guise of creating employment.”

Al-Naami is almost certainly correct, since Israel’s electricity grid ties together the West Bank, occupied by Israel in 1967, and the areas on which Israel was founded during the Nakba in 1948.

While all of Israel is a settler-colony built on lands from which Palestinians were or are being forcibly displaced, its construction of settlements in the West Bank is recognized under international law as a war crime.

As such, by supplying the settlements with electricity, Jordan would be aiding and abetting a crime that is almost certainly a primary focus of the International Criminal Court’s investigation.

The Saudi government reportedly tried to pressure the UAE not to move forward with the deal since it “undermined” plans by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to implement a regional climate policy, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported last week.

Saudi Arabia – whose main source of income is fossil fuels – is likely more worried about losing influence to the Emirates, than stemming the impact of climate change.

Arms deals in Morocco

Meanwhile, Israel’s defense minister Benny Gantz flew to Morocco last week to sign a military deal with the North African country paving the way for arms sales.

Israel and Morocco normalized relations last year after decades of clandestine ties.

This was just the latest demonstration of how the Abraham Accords turn Arab states into profit centers for Israel’s war industry.

Days after Gantz’s visit, news broke that Morocco has already spent $22 million this year buying Israeli “suicide” drones.

But Moroccans, like Jordanians, have been taking to the streets against their rulers’ American-brokered deals with Tel Aviv.

Ali Abunimah is executive director and Tamara Nassar is associate editor of The Electronic Intifada