Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (June 22, 2020) - Annexation: the crucial Jordan dimension


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Why is Jordan making such a fuss about Netanyahu’s West Bank annexation plans? Israel is not annexing Jordanian land.

A. Last week, Jordan’s King Abdullah II engaged in a Zoom marathon with seven groups of US senators and representatives, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and key committee heads. Abdullah warned them against “any unilateral measure to annex lands in the West Bank”. He reminded Congress that he continues to champion “establishing an independent, sovereign and viable Palestinian state on the 4 June 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

Notably, Abdullah concentrated his anti-annexation lobbying efforts on Congress. He seems to have lost faith in the White House where, in pushing President Trump’s ‘deal of the century’, Jared Kushner has repeatedly ignored his advice. Abdullah apparently hopes Congress, where Jordan enjoys broad bilateral support, will succeed in exercising influence with the Trump team.

Abdullah has also turned down phone calls from Prime Minister Netanyahu, who long ago lost credibility with the Jordanian monarch by promising movement on the Palestinian issue but never delivering. Senior Jordanian officials reportedly directed the attention of Israelis to a key passage in the appeal of UAE Ambassador to the US Yusef al-Otaiba that was published in Yediot Aharonot on June 12: “An annexation declaration . . . will primarily affect Jordan, whose stability--sometimes taken for granted--benefits the entire region and particularly Israel.”

Note the word “primarily”. Jordan’s stability, according to this highly publicized Arab warning to Israel, backed up by Amman, is more important to the region than even the Palestinian lands and rights that even the most minor Israeli annexation will violate.

Q. Yet the extent and timing of annexation have not yet even been agreed in Jerusalem. It seems that disagreement within the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition and between Jerusalem and Washington is delaying any decision.

A. King Abdullah can take some credit for the delay. He is preempting with his campaign in Washington. He clearly fears the far-right ideology that, he believes, underlies the Israeli drive. The Israeli right hopes to prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state by reducing its size, surrounding it with Israeli territory, and cutting it off territorially from the Arab world. Abdullah’s security establishment is explaining this to Defense Minister Gantz and the IDF, though the Israeli security community hardly needs persuading.

The ideology targeted by Abdullah is usually termed “Jordan is Palestine” by the Israeli right and “alternative homeland” by angry Jordanians. The Hashemite Kingdom lives in constant fear lest colonialist and messianic Greater Israel policies implemented in the West Bank with Trump administration acquiescence drive the region’s 2.5 million Palestinians to flee eastward to Jordan. The Kingdom, whose Palestine-origin population is already roughly 50 percent of the total, would be “Palestinized”.

That, for Jordan, is the threatened outcome of annexation. Leaving aside ideology, this is the outcome whether or not Israeli and American annexationists intend it to happen (they plead innocent, of course). Squeeze West Bank Palestinians enough and they will flee or migrate across the Jordan River. Obviously, the more of the West Bank that Israel annexes, the worse this would be in the Jordanian view of things. Yet in Jordanian eyes, even minor annexation would break a precedent and provide a push in this direction.

Q. Let’s leave both Jordanian and Palestinian sentiments aside for a moment and play devil’s advocate. From Israel’s standpoint, what is wrong with a Palestinian “alternative homeland” in Jordan rather than a state in the West Bank?

A. Speaking strictly in terms of realpolitik rather than international law and morality, the problem here lies in the difference between the way Hashemite Jordan sees itself and the way a Palestinian state implanted in its stead would see itself. Hashemite Jordan was created by the British in the 1920s as a kind of keystone state. Just look at the map. It separates larger and stronger powers from one another: Iraq on the east from Israel/Palestine to the west; Saudi Arabia to its south from Syria on its northern border. It is constantly balancing the influence of these powers as a means of ensuring its own security.

This means that from Israel’s standpoint, Jordan provides strategic depth looking eastward toward Iraq and north toward Syria. In recent years, that strategic depth has become ever more important as Iran has gained a military presence in both Iraq and Syria. Historically, this explains why right-wingers like Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, upon becoming prime minister, ceased declaiming that “Jordan is Palestine” and began to appreciate Jordan’s value as a strategic ally, partner or buffer.

Shamir, meeting secretly with King Hussein in London on the eve of the 1991 First Gulf War, reportedly “saw eye to eye” with him because he and Hussein were the same (diminutive) height. Sharon explained his change of heart by reciting lines from a popular song, “things you see from there you don’t see from here”. When King Hussein refused to join the US-recruited military alliance against Iraq in the First Gulf War because he needed to maintain Jordan’s neutral buffer status, none other than Yitzhak Shamir went to bat for him in Washington.

Shamir, Sharon, and the Israeli security establishment understood that a Palestinian regime in Amman would behave differently. It would almost certainly ally itself with radical regimes to its east or north. It would continue to preach that all of what is today Israel should be Palestine, too. It would have no incentive to compromise territorially with Israel.

King Abdullah’s message to Israel, via Washington and the Israeli security community, is “why jeopardize our strategic alliance by endangering Jordan’s stability?” Any annexation could stir up unrest among Palestinians in both the West Bank and Jordan. As matters stand, Jordan is a stable and viable strategic asset both to Israel and to the United States.

Q. Then why shouldn’t Jordan want an Israeli land buffer between it and a West Bank Palestinian entity?

A. Jordan indeed wants an Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley. But not a sovereign presence. Ways to leave this security presence in place, perhaps integrated with an international force and coordinated with the Jordanian security establishment, have been negotiated at length with Palestinians for the past 25 years since the advent of the Oslo process. In general, the PLO has accepted that a demilitarized Palestinian state would have sovereignty up to the Jordan River, but not an exclusive sovereign security presence there.

That’s what Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin meant when he declared in the Knesset on October 5, 1995, a month before his assassination, that “The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest sense of that term”. Rabin’s declaration is these days deliberately misrepresented by advocates of Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley. But Rabin was clear: security border, yes; sovereign border, no. A security border does not require annexation. The Jordan Valley has filled that function for Israel--and indeed for Jordan as well--since 1967.

Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel specified clearly that its Jordan Valley border with the West Bank is with a future Palestinian state, not Israel. That’s why by and large Israelis cannot cross into Jordan by land via the Jordan Valley’s Allenby Bridge (also known as King Hussein Bridge); it is reserved for Jordanian-Palestinian traffic.

A Palestinian state in the West Bank that has a joint border with the Hashemite Kingdom is important for Jordan in terms of the status and aspirations of its large Palestinian population. From Jordan’s point of view, this would cement that population’s loyalty to the Hashemite Kingdom by giving expression to Palestinian sovereignty elsewhere, westward across the river. And it would prevent further Palestinian population movement into Jordan, which absorbed the bulk of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and again (when they were termed “displaced Palestinians”) in 1967.>

Q. Jordan gets $1.5 billion in military and economic aid annually from the United States. Abdullah’s lobbying regarding Israeli annexation has run into an American demand that Amman extradite a terrorist, Ahlam Aref Ahmad al-Tamimi. Why is this a stumbling block?

A. Tamimi is a Jordanian national. She was involved in assisting the Sbarro restaurant suicide attack in Jerusalem in 2001 that killed 15 people, including two American citizens. She was caught and imprisoned in Israel for life, then released in the 2011 one-thousand prisoner exchange that involved the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas imprisonment in Gaza. She returned to Jordan, where she is a hero among some Islamist populist circles. She has never expressed regret for killing Israeli and American civilians, including eight under the age of 16.

Now the US wants Tamimi extradited because she killed Americans. The Trump administration is threatening to withhold financial assistance from Jordan if she is not delivered to the US.

Obviously, the Tamimi affair also casts a shadow over Abdullah’s efforts to galvanize US congressional pressure on the administration to prevent Israeli annexation in the West Bank. This is ironic. She had to be pardoned by Israel, where she was convicted for murdering Americans too, in order to be released. Jordan cites legal reasons for not allowing her extradition.

This is at best a technical legal issue, but one with domestic political ramifications for the Hashemite Kingdom with its large Palestinian population. Abdullah’s appeal to Congress to block annexation is, in sharp contrast, a major strategic issue. Until now, the Tamimi case was handled through diplomatic channels. Now congressional supporters of Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ that enables Israeli annexation appear to be using it to leverage pushback against Abdullah’s anti-annexation campaign.>

Q. Bottom line?

A. In terms of Israel’s broadest strategic interests, the potential damage to Jordan inflicted by Israeli annexation measures is as crucial as the damage to legitimate Palestinian interests. Instability in Jordan is at least as bad for Israel as instability in the West Bank. And the two dynamics are inextricably linked.

Netanyahu cannot cite a single convincing strategic justification for annexation. It’s all about his legacy, his followers’ messianic designs, and his efforts to bolster ultra-nationalist public support against the courts that could convict him of corruption. He will not follow the path of his predecessors Shamir and Sharon.

Abdullah, Yusef al-Otaiba and others in the Arab world are making clear how much damage this will cause. Congress should firmly tell the Trump administration to tell Netanyahu to just drop it. Israel is in good shape strategically as matters stand, thanks not a little to Jordan. Leave well enough alone.

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