Jordan and Israel: Awkward Bedfellows

By | Nov 09, 2010

By Samantha Sisskind

AMMAN, JORDAN – Two groups met at the banks of one of the world’s most meandering and politically significant rivers in the world. Standing in a rickety wooden hut framed by thick brush on the east bank of the Jordan River was a group of American students, and directly across on the west bank of the river was an equally sized group of American tourists, waiting upon steps leading to a mammoth stone Israeli military outpost. Not twenty feet separated the two groups, yet each pretended that the other wasn’t there.  The tension between the two groups, viewing the same site from opposite perspectives, was palpable. They wondered, “do we acknowledge each other, or do we just continue to ignore each other, take a picture of the river and go?” Finally, a student on the Jordanian side of the river sighed loudly, threw his hands to his sides, and yelled across the river, “Well, this is awkward!” effectively slicing the taut atmosphere and leaving those on all sides of the river in stitches.

This light-hearted story’s implications echo in political reality.  The relationship between Jordan and Israel, described as a warm peace following the peace treaty in 1994, has since cooled, and now more closely resembles geopolitical awkwardness.  Jordan and Israel are two countries adjacent to one another, yet both are at a loss for how to act toward each other.

After the Second Intifada, relations between Jordan and Israel declined as the violence discouraged Jordan from engaging in cross border cultural and economic ventures, and worsened even more so as a result of Israeli military operations in Gaza.  This past spring, King Abdullah II of Jordan said that the relationship between Israel and Jordan is at its worst in years, claiming that Jordan was better off economically before the treaty in 1994.  In addition, Israeli opposition to Jordan’s recent nuclear energy aspirations after uranium was discovered in Jordanian soil has also worn on the ties between the two countries.  The King cites a lack of trust between the two nations and accuses Israel of being less than straightforward in their efforts for peace in the Middle East.

Israel maintains similar frustrations with Jordan regarding items of the cooperative treaty of 1994 that weren’t kept. Earlier this year, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein lamented that Jordan had not followed through with their commitment to foster cultural exchange and interfaith dialogue as stipulated in the 1994 treaty. In addition, the Jordanian government irritated Israel when it reneged on an earlier promise not to open up talks with Hamas, though Jordan says it only initiated the talks to boost coordination between Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas for the sake of the peace process.

The negative turn in relations between Jordan and Israel has been complicated further by the halted negotiations over the issue of settlements. Failure to reach a resolution yet again after two months of talks has left Jordan frustrated with the lack of progress and Israel irritated by Jordan’s intervention.  Moreover, Jordan recently seized the opportunity to win European affections after foreign ministers from France and Spain were “snubbed” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Recent events in the peace process have cemented this uncertainty.  For Jordan, Israel’s decisions regarding the Palestinian question affect its population and its infrastructure, which accommodates displaced Palestinians; any negative change in the current state of affairs poses a threat to the security of Jordan’s borders and its internal stability.  For Israel, it is important to recognize that Jordan is the one nation on its borders with which Israel can have a cooperative relationship at the present time.  Israel needs Jordan’s cooperation to advance its own security interests as well. In the end, both Jordan and Israel have much more to lose than to gain by not aiming to restore good cooperative relations with one another.

Unquestionably, the population of Jordan is growing restless with Israel. Jordan’s relationship with Israel is a prominent issue in today’s Jordanian national elections with most candidates espousing platforms critical of Israel. Some express the widespread fear that Israel will expel more Palestinians from the West Bank who will resettle in Jordan and make it a de facto Palestinian state–70 percent of its population is already Palestinian. According to one candidate, “It would mean Jordan’s demise and the obliteration of our national identity,” Though the majority of the population is Palestinian or of Palestinian descent, the nationalist Jordanian identity is strong, and Jordanians support a separate state of Palestine. Though the pro-West King and parliament of Jordan will not sever the peace agreement any time soon, the souring relationship ensures there will be no a swift agreement or cooperation from other Arab states with Israel in the near future, which stunts the peace process.

Back at the river, IDF soldiers and royal security forces abruptly ended the fraternizing between the students and tourists on opposite sides, illustrating the non-confrontational posture both states have taken toward one another on a diplomatic level. Direct interaction and cooperation have been replaced with toleration and separation until either party determines once and for all how it will treat the other.  While the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel set a standard for cross-border cooperation, the integrity of the treaty is compromised by a lack of trust that permeates the relationship. The crucial nature of the Jordanian-Israeli relationship for the security of both states and the stability of the region is worth reiterating. If the two states do not make a point of repairing their relationship, they will hinder the progress of Middle East indefinitely.

Well, this is awkward.

5 thoughts on “Jordan and Israel: Awkward Bedfellows

  1. Judith Green` says:

    Samantha–I am greatly impressed with your ablity to write such thought provoking articles about the middle east. I have always been and will always be a zionist. The day that Israel was born was a very gleeful day for me. I am so very proud of the progress it has made in a relatively short time. Keep up the excellent papers.—Aunt Judy

  2. Ivan says:

    Seriously, they’re like severely dysfunctional roommates at this point. Which would make an entertaining sitcom. (For metaphorical comparison, see this video, where twentieth-century geopolitics is reenacted by food.)

  3. Nas says:

    Two points…

    1) The article makes it sound like the elections in Jordan were all about Israel. It should be made clear that over 750 people ran for elections and in no way was the Arab Israel conflict campaigned on by “most candidates”. That’s very misleading.

    2) The article states the majority of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian decent, to the tune of 70%. Where did you get this number from. Can you provide data of a reliable census that indicates such, because otherwise, simply spewing out numbers or drawing conclusions because you read it somewhere doesn’t make it true.

  4. Samantha says:

    Dear Nas,

    Valid points both.

    1) The article never intended to cast the elections in such a light. However, from personal observation of campaigning in Amman during the parliamentary elections, Jordan’s relationship with Israel was definitely important and often mentioned in politicians’ rhetoric. Perhaps Jordanian policy toward Israel was not a cornerstone of at least 376 candidates’ platforms, but most candidates who did state any opinion did come out expressing at the very least exasperation with the relationship between Israel and Jordan. The point of mentioning the elections in my post was to underscore the general disillusionment felt by Jordanian society toward the political relationship between Jordan and Israel.

    2) The population of Jordan is currently just under 6 million people as recorded by the 2009 census. 1.9 million Palestinian refugees are reportedly living in Jordan according to UNHCR, which means 30% of the population is made up of just refugees from Gaza and the West Bank after 1948 (and their progeny). People who left Israel and the territories for Jordan after the war in 1967 are not considered refugees, and also many Palestinians hold Jordanian citizenship, which makes it hard to determine exactly how many there are. Also, the Jordanian government refuses to release the exact numbers of the Palestinian population, so it is impossible to give a precise figure, you will only find estimates in any source you encounter and no source can be more right than the other, since no one actually knows. However, most estimates I’ve seen put the number somewhere as low as 50% of the population and as high as 80% (which is way too high). 70% is the widely held figure among most Israeli publications and sources, which is why I included it in my paper, but there are definitely sources that would disagree. I probably should have been more equivocal about the percentage, since there is no published census for the population.

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