After 25 Years of Peace, Israel-Jordan Relations Need a Restart

Ksenia Svetlova October 2019

Jordan will not celebrate this month’s 25th anniversary of the festive signing of the historic peace agreement with Israel in Wadi Araba. The winds of reconciliation that blew at the time, the dreams, have long since dissipated. Most people in Amman do not feel there is anything to celebrate, and those who do believe in the agreement and in the vitality of the Kingdom prefer to downplay their emotions. Despite the grimness, and regardless of the crisis between the two states over the Jordanian enclaves of Tzofar and Naharayim, leased to Israel and soon to be returned to Jordanian sovereignty, the peace agreement is alive, albeit light years away from the dreams of Prime Minister Rabin and King Hussein, may they rest in peace.

Ahead of the anniversary, a Mitvim Institute team visited Amman and held policy dialogues with academics, diplomats and former army officers. Many expressed amazement that we had bothered to come, that someone in Israel is interested in Jordan and wants to know how to improve the relationship, how unnecessary crises can be averted and how the sides can work together toward a common goal of peace and prosperity.

Israeli officials, researchers or politicians hardly ever come here anymore, our interlocutors told us. The one exception are the Israeli security officials who regularly and frequently meet with their Jordanian counterparts. The security aspects of the peace accord run smoothly, reflecting the security-oriented approach of the outgoing government, an approach that prioritizes security relations over all other aspects, believing that no progress on them is possible, in any case.

However, should the strategic ties with the Hashemite Kingdom be limited to security issues, important though they are? Can a limited relationship that begins and ends with ties between defense officials carry the weight of the entire agreement for long? Do economic, diplomatic and civilian ties not create an additional layer to the relationship that can also enhance progress in the security field? The peace agreement with Egypt has also been emptied of real content, being largely limited to security cooperation – and normalization nowhere on the horizon. Many in Israel believe that given the opposition to normalization by many Jordanians and Egyptians, there is no choice but to make do with what is available – security cooperation that does, indeed, save lives and provides security and defense.

During the journey to Amman, we came to realize the extent to which Jordan desires cooperation with Israel in areas such as tourism (medical tourism, too), water and high-tech. Israel does not prioritize these fields and they are not at the top of the government’s diplomatic agenda (if it even has one). Thus, after many years of discussing major and significant mutual projects, these are postponed endlessly to the chagrin of the potential Jordanian partners.

Jordan’s economic crisis and its hosting of 1.5 million Syrian refugees came up in every conversation we had in Amman. The crisis is not new, and last year the Jordanian capital was shaken by mass protest government, cutback and corruption – similar to the ones taking place in Beirut these days. Arab States, the US and the World Bank have provided urgent aid to stabilize the Kingdom, but Israel hardly noticed. The media does not deal with the major projects stuck for years or with the fact that Israel could have done a lot more to help its neighbor to the east attain economic stability, which could have definitely enhanced security, too. Israelis are not sufficiently interested in Jordan, even though the country is of vital importance to Israel’s security – with its 309-kilometer border a vital shield against any troubles from the east.

The Israeli enthusiasm over the signing of the 1994 peace agreement has already waned, and Israelis only touchdown with Jordan only when they fly to the Far East, transiting through Amman or when vacationing in Aqaba. By the way, anyone wishing to shorten the waiting time at the land border between the two states will have to shell out hundreds of dollars for the very short flight. There is barely any demand for that route and the Jordanians would rather sell Israelis cheap tickets for continuing flights to India, Thailand and Sri Lanka, aviation sources told us. The absence of visits also stems from the difficulties of most Jordanians to get entry visas to Israel. Jordanian-Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab told us about repeated requests by his friends and family to visit Israel for family occasions or other needs. “In the end, people simply give up. Israel loses out big time because those who do manage to get a visa are generally favorably impressed and take home a positive impression of the state,” Kuttab said.

The Mitvim Institute 2018 Foreign Policy Index attests to the same attitudes. Most Israelis view Saudi Arabia as the most important Arab state, not Jordan or Egypt – Israel’s strategic peace partners and its immediate neighbors. Of the two, Egypt is regarded as far more important than Jordan. The public is influenced greatly by the policy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who talks with certainty about the strengthening ties with Arab states and the new horizons for Israel’s relationship with Gulf capitals. He never mentions the decline in trade between Israel and Jordan, the endless foot dragging over the Med-Dead project that generates great anger in Jordan, and the fact that nothing is left of the regional prosperity and cooperation forged in 1994.

The Palestinian issue is central to Israeli-Jordanian relations. The percentage of Palestinians in the Hashemite Kingdom is a matter of contention – the Jordanians say they constitute 40 percent of the population whereas Israel is convinced they number 60 percent. Either way, the situation in the West Bank, and especially in Jerusalem, has a significant impact on Jordanian attitudes toward Israel. For Netanyahu, the Palestinians are no longer relevant and Arab states have abandoned their cause. However, our conversations in Amman made clear that this approach is illogical and not feasible. Jordan greatly fears escalation in the West Bank, and especially in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, and seeks better lines of communication with Israel.

With a relatively modest investment and prioritization of the relationship with the Kingdom, Israel could save itself the repeated embarrassments it has recently experienced in relations with Jordan. Jordanian scholars and journalists told us that had Israel acted in a diplomatic and rational fashion, it could have boosted the King’s standing vis-à-vis radicals and BDS proponents. They were puzzled over Israel’s preference for humiliating and undermining its strategic partner and the stability of that regime. Why did Netanyahu embrace the security guard who had shot dead a Jordanian at the embassy in Amman? Why was there no serious, in-depth investigation of the death of a Jordanian judge at the Allenby Bridge border crossing? Why is Israel playing along with Saudi aspirations on Al-Aqsa? Our Jordanian interlocutors wondered what Israel’s policy on Jordan was and had a hard time understanding why Israel was shaking off the important alliance with all its might. In this context, the recent call by Blue and White party Chair Benny Gantz at a rally on the Naharayim Peace Island to strengthen the peace with Jordan and create a “region of cooperation” along the border is of particular importance.

When the argument is heard that Israel’s standing in the Middle East has never been better, it is worth noticing developments in Jordan. The peace agreement with Jordan, just like the Jordan River, tends to dry up over time unless efforts are made to nurture it. Despite the frustration and disappointment, we returned from Amman with a clear sense that repairing or restarting the relationship is within the realm of the possible. Israel could win back Jordan with the right media coverage and attention, by revving up significant economic projects that would help resolve Jordan’s water shortages and create jobs, with an effort to break though the deadlock in the Palestinian arena. In the final analysis, Jordan is right here, within touching distance and not in the dark beyond. Anyone who restores Jordan to the top of Israel’s list of diplomatic priorities would do wonders for the relationship between us, benefitting all sides.

Ksenia Svetlova is a Policy Fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a former Member of Knesset.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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