Exaggerated Disappointment on the Silver Jubilee of the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty

Prof. Elie Podeh November 2019
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The 26th of October marked the silver jubilee of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. The media emphasized the fact that no formal celebrations were held on both sides of the Jordan River. Indeed, like the 40th anniversary of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, the event passed without fanfare. The absence of formal celebrations was assessed as a true manifestation of the frozen peace between Israel and Jordan.

Yet both Jordanian (and Egyptian)-Israeli relations should be evaluated on two different levels: the overt and the covert. Obviously, the overt aspects of these relationships are well known, while their covert aspects are hidden, making a balanced account of the relations difficult, if not impossible.

A quick review of the public relationship between Israel and Jordan in the last decade reveals multiple crises: In 2009, Jordan recalled its ambassador in retaliation against Israel’s launch of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. A new ambassador, Walid Obaydat, was nominated only in 2012: The delay was the result of Jordan’s resentment over Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians and the lack of progress in the diplomatic arena. King Abdallah’s policy stemmed from his desire to appease the local and vocal opposition coming from Jordanian citizens (many of whom are Palestinians or belong to the Muslim Brotherhood). The trade unions and the Anti-Normalization Committee in Jordan hold significant sway over the population and the king could not ignore them. Two years later, in 2014, the ambassador was recalled once again. This time the motive was Israeli provocations on al-Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount). Throughout this period, the king refused to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu, in order to avoid legitimizing the latter’s policy.

In July 2017 another crisis ensued when an Israeli security guard shot a young Palestinian who tied to stab him in his home in Amman. During the incident the Jordanian owner of the house was accidentally killed as well. The event triggered a crisis in Israeli-Jordanian relations and in the media there were calls to revoke the treaty. Eventually, Israel paid compensation to the family’s victims and also agreed to remove the metal detectors positioned at the entrance to Temple Mount. Israeli ambassador Einat Shlein was not allowed to return to her post and a new Israeli ambassador, Amir Weisbrod, was appointed only nine months later. Finally, the king decided not to extend the lease of 25 years on the disputed territories of Zofar and Naharayim, as stipulated in the peace treaty (although he later allowed the extension of the lease for another six months), in response to public demand. Thus, in view of the strained public relationship between the two countries, it was no surprise that Jordan held no official ceremonies on the occasion of the silver jubilee.

Yet, the last decade also saw an expansion of Israeli-Jordanian security, intelligence and economic cooperation. One of the major reasons for this development was the rise of ISIS in neighboring Iraq and Syria following the Arab Spring. Israel’s concern for Jordan’s survival prompted growing intelligence cooperation against mutual threats. Moreover, in 2014 Israel supplied Jordan with 16 Cobra Helicopters, which were had been taken out of service the IDF. The mission of these helicopters, added to the 25 Cobras already in use by the Jordanian Air Force, was to detect ISIS guerilla fighters on Jordan’s borders. A year later, Israel and Jordanian aircrafts fueled each other during a military drill called Red Flag, which was held in Nevada with US and Singapore. A Jordanian air force delegation visited Israel several months later, while an officer who refused to participate in the delegation to Israel was summarily fired. Furthermore, the cooperation between the two armies along the border and the bridges is impeccable. As the above information is available on the media, one may speculate that the actual extent of cooperation is even wider. All the Israelis involved in Israeli-Jordanian relations whom I interviewed during my research on Israel’s clandestine relations with its neighbors admitted that the military and intelligence relations between the two countries have been excellent.

The economic sphere, which largely operates covertly, saw a significant rise in the last decade in the transfer of trade transit between Israel and the Gulf through Jordan. Israel, according to Mitvim’s Yitzhak Gal, imports petro-chemical products, as well as other products from the economic free zones in the Gulf. In addition, Jordan uses the Haifa port, particularly after the closure of the land transfer through Syria, in order to export products to Turkey, Russia and eastern Europe. The same route is used to deliver products to Jordan and the Gulf. Thus, Jordan constitutes an important link for Israel to another field of clandestine activity – the Gulf.

For many years Israel has suffered from what I call the Mistress Syndrome—the fact that Arab countries and minorities in the Middle East prefer to keep their relations with Israel out of the public eye. Israel expected that its relationship with its Arab neighbors would change and become public when a formal peace treaty is signed. True, diplomatic relations were initiated and embassies were opened, but the main channel of relations remained hidden. The Mossad, the Ministry of Defense, and the Prime Minister’s Office envoys, on the Israeli side, and their Jordanian counterparts, became the main channels of communication. Both sides apparently found it useful to rely on agencies that would guarantee the secrecy of their contacts and prevent leaks. The foreign offices, on both sides, were not considered reliable.

The result was that Jordan (and Egypt as well) kept the better part of their relations with Israel behind closed doors. So in many ways—despite the peace treaties and Israel’s military strength— Israel has remained a desired, yet hidden, mistress. The main reason for this anomaly, one should emphasize, is the lack of resolution of the Palestinian problem. To become a publicly recognized partner, Israel must deliver on the Palestinian issue. Until then, the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty or the absence of silver jubilee celebrations should not be a cause of disappointment.

Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At present, he is a Visiting Professor at the LSE, England.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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