Jordan’s crossroads in the Arab Spring

Twin disaffection on the part of both Syrians and Palestinians in Jordan should be put in historical context. Both Palestinians and Syrians can claim historical links to Jordan, including arguments of political control and ownership, which may now surface more strongly.

Nicolai Due-Gundersen
11 August 2013

Amidst the ongoing uncertainties of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, recent peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have provided a glimmer of hope for a perennial source of tension within the MENA region. Of note has been Israel’s gradual release of up to 104 Palestinian prisoners, pushed last-minute by Netanyahu “for the good of [Israel].” While the first round of peace talks this summer were held in Washington D.C., round two of negotiations will take place far closer to home, with Israelis and Palestinians resuming dialogue first in Jerusalem and then the West Bank by mid-August.  As with the previous round, talks will be facilitated by US officials.

While some critics may see such dialogue as progressive, talks will resume amid widespread cynicism on both sides. “[P]rime Ministers from time to time make decisions that go against public opinion, when it is important for the country to do so,” admits Netanyahu in an open letter to the citizens of Israel. Palestinian representatives, on the other hand, have welcomed the release of prisoners with caution, expressing how such a move is “an overdue step” and that it must be put into the long-term context of “the resumption of negotiations in order to put an end to decades of occupation and exile, and to start a new stage of justice, freedom and peace for Israel, Palestine and the rest of the region.”

In addition to public skepticism, some critics have not only dismissed the talks outright but warned of serious consequences for a region already in chaos, should such talks fail.  “[T]he Israeli establishment […] pursues a policy that has put to rest all prospects of a two-state solution,” opines Mohammed Ayoob, a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Michigan State University. “[D]espite Netanyahu's lip-service to the concept of two states,” he continues, “some of the most influential figures in the Israeli cabinet have made it clear that the two-state solution is dead.” Indeed, senior Israeli cabinet members such as Naftali Bennet have concluded that “[t]he idea that a Palestinian state should be established within the Land of Israel has reached a dead end. The most important thing for the Land of Israel is to build, and build, and build [Jewish settlements].”

As for a Palestinian home, leading Israeli ministers have also made it clear that the West Bank should be a place of “Israeli sovereignty” and that the fate of Palestinian settlers should be “determined in an agreement with Jordan”. While Jordan itself has taken on a role as MENA peace-broker in the past, the so-called ‘Jordan Option’ of turning Jordan into an official Palestinian state has been a recurring pressure point whenever peace talks have stalled between Israel and Palestine. “Israeli leaders use the ‘Jordan option’ whenever Israel is in time of crisis,” explains Lamis Andoni, an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs. “[I]t offers an excuse to force yet more Palestinians from their homeland.”

Unsurprisingly, the ‘Jordan Option’ has been strongly rejected by Jordanian officials. However, as the country attempts to increase its tourism and repel the continuing waves of the Arab Spring, the notion of a ‘Palestinian Jordan’ may resurface under newer and darker circumstances, influenced by continuing regional conflict.

The Hashemite kingdom

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has often been described as a crossroads of the Arab world and a model of interfaith harmony. Landlocked amid much of the Middle East, Jordan’s unique geographical location has also allowed it to serve as a regional mediator between Israel and that state’s Arab neighbors. These two factors, the paragon of interfaith calm and Jordan’s role as peace-broker are ones that are often promoted by the Jordanian leadership.

“Jordan is a country of a […] unique regional role [and] a heartland of religions,” explains the Royal Hashemite Court, which serves as the public offices of the Hashemite government. However, underneath this image of pan-Arabism and intercultural nationalism, dwells the truth of a Palestinian majority that has settled in Jordan as an excluded class. Experiencing limited socio-political inclusion, such restrictions reached a crux in 2008, when the Jordanian government began stripping Palestinian nationals of Jordanian citizenship.

“Denationalizing Jordanian citizens is carried out by secret instructions by a secret committee within the intelligence and security agencies,” explains Bassam Badareen, bureau chief for London-based Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper. “[I]ts sole purpose is to scare the Palestinians in Jordan from demanding their civil and electoral rights.” Jordan’s ostensible reasons for such a move have been to end the contention between Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization over representation of the Palestinian people, a de facto rivalry that was created by the historical influx of Palestinian immigrants into Jordan in lieu of a recognized Palestinian state.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that Jordan’s largest population is Palestinian, with almost 1.8 million Palestinian refugees within its borders. Without a doubt, denial of equal citizenship for Palestinians has created simmering resentment as such pseudo-nationals see Bedouin minorities, the powerbase of the Hashemite leadership, enjoy socio-political and economic privileges denied to the majority. And such resentment can only worsen as Palestinians observe the efforts of the Arab Spring, which have deposed corrupt minority leaders. “Today, the Palestinians are a ticking bomb waiting to explode,” claims Mudar Zahnan, a UK-based Jordanian-Palestinian author and former economic specialist at the US Embassy in Amman. “[E]specially as they watch their fellow Arabs rebelling against autocrats such as Egypt's Mubarak, Libya's Qaddafi, or Syria's Assad.”

It is Syria’s Assad, of course, that may determine the tipping point for Jordan’s carefully kept image of stability. With continuing conflict, more and more Syrians are leaving their native land and seeking refuge in Jordan. “As of mid-January 2013, the United Nations has registered almost 176,000 refugees in Jordan,” asserts the Migration Policy Center, based at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. “The Jordanian Government estimates that 250,000 have entered the country.”

What do Syrian refugees and Palestinian Jordanians have in common? Both feel regarded as an excluded underclass, stateless and unwelcome in the Kingdom. In other words, the Hashemite problem is now twofold: the brewing resentment of an internal majority and the growing presence of a Syrian periphery underclass. “Every day, thousands of Syrian refugees walk early in the morning to the entrance of Zaatari camp and form a long queue,” observes journalist Carla Fibla, a visitor to the Zaatari camp in Jordan. “Nobody knows what is going to be distributed, yet they wait because they have nothing. Screaming and arguing, many complain of the ‘inhumane’ system that their ‘Jordanian brothers’ have established in Zaatari camp.”

Both Palestinians and Syrians can claim historical links to Jordan, including arguments of political control and ownership, which may now surface more strongly.

Israeli and American interests

A substantial body of opinion has developed in Israel and elsewhere which favors the snappy argument that Jordan is Palestine,” says Daniel Pipes, Director of the Middle East Forum and columnist at the New York Post and The Jerusalem Post. This argument first took political root in the 1920’s and by 1989 had been more structurally outlined by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Arab claims of Jordan being a Palestinian state have also been historically active, with the Palestine Liberation Organization being especially vocal. “The Palestine Liberation Organization has often declared Jordan a part of Palestine, and occasionally lays formal claim to it,” explains Pipes. Nonetheless, experts maintain that such claims cannot be historically proven due to widespread disagreement of the delimitation of any Palestinian state. “The Jordan-is-Palestine idea is not only historically wrong, legally superficial, geographically ignorant, and politically procrustean, but its implementation would be extremely dangerous,” continues Pipes. “It [would] rebound dangerously against both Israeli and American interests.”

The Syrian claim

As for Syrian claims, there is the political unit of a ‘Greater Syria’, fiercely advocated by, among others, Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000), Basher al-Assad’s father and King Abdullah I of Jordan (1935-1999). “[T]he government of Hafez al-Assad adopted Pan-Syrian ideas and made them Syrian state policy,” Pipes explains. At the same time, King Abdullah I of Jordan supported equally expansionist plans. One popular interpretation of ‘Greater Syria’ has been a return to the historical Syria pre-1920. Such a political entity would include present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel and of course Jordan.

Mohammed Harfoush, a Lebanese journalist, outlines the political ramifications of such an ideal, describing Assad’s efforts. “Hafez al-Assad came to power with a regional agenda that sought to establish a ‘Greater Syria.’ He was always accused of interfering or attempting to interfere in Palestinian, Jordanian and Iraqi affairs, in addition to meddling in Lebanon’s. Many noted that he had failed to accomplish his objective in Jordan and Iraq, and he continued to be accused of considering Palestine the Southern Syria, quarreling with Yasser Arafat, and dividing the Palestinian movement so as to weaken it and use it as a card to play.”

Jordanians themselves

Expert opinions aside, Jordanians themselves have their own take on the situation in a far more disturbing context. “Palestinians and Syrians aren’t necessarily the problem per se,” explains a Jordanian author at a café in Jebel Weibdeh, one of the quieter suburbs of Jordan’s capital, Amman. “The issue is much simpler. Jordan has been used, and continues to be used as a dumping ground for other countries’ problems, not only regionally but by external powers. The First and Second Gulf Wars saw an influx of Iraqi refugees,” he continues, leaning across the table. “Now, there is an influx of Syrians. The latest wave in the human troubles Jordan is forced to accommodate by its leading aid providers.”

Indeed, a recent drive past one of Amman’s government compounds exposed this author to a first personal glimpse of small but quite vocal protests against Jordan’s intake of Syrian refugees. “People are worried,” explained one local witness, a middle-aged cab driver. “Too much money is being spent. [Also], Syrians who have nothing are willing to work for nothing. We worry about our jobs.”

Like its Palestinian counterpart, the arguments for a ‘Greater Syria’ have often been ambiguous and overshadowed by a deeper historical focus on pan-Arabism. Nonetheless, its political impetus is more important now than ever. With the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan increasing and the simmering discontent of internal Palestinians, the minority leadership may be forced to manage two rival claims to their legitimacy. Indeed, the historical interference of Syrian politics with Palestinian affairs may exacerbate hostility between Syrians and Palestinians in Jordan, which could further compound the Kingdom’s political distress.

As the summer peace talks soon enter their second round, US Secretary of State John Kerry has praised “serious commitment […] from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas”. However, some critics question why the US should act as mediator at all. Not only do some analysts claim that US influence stacks the cards against Palestinians from the start, others argue that it allows Israel to maintain a political framework of non-accountability that can only harm long-term peace prospects. “The US-led […] peace process […]serves to shield Israel from what it sees as two of its most significant threats,” argues Ben White, a Palestine/Israel researcher. “[Namely] accountability and democratization. The peace process thwarts accountability because it seeks to supplant international law and international forums as the means of solving the conflict.”

Rather than allow the peace process to evolve in a neutral arena where both Israel and Palestine share some forms of recognition (such as the UN), the US itself seeks to host negotiations both as a way of managing its closest ally in the Middle East and to deflect attention from US inaction over Israel’s West Bank settlement. In addition, should such negotiations be headed by a state that is not only geographically aloof from the region but disliked by both parties? Palestinians will be cool toward US interaction for obvious reasons. Perhaps surprisingly, such feelings are echoed by the Israelis. “Israel agreed to release 104 convicted terrorists just to get the Palestinians to talk peace,” writes one journalist in an article for Israel Today. “Would the US agree to release 104 Guantanamo prisoners for talks with anyone?  Is the US good for its word?”

If Jordan wishes to preserve its image of stability and status as the region’s melting pot, it may wish to consider its own involvement in the current peace process. Jordan’s position is bolstered by not only its proximity and Palestinian populace but by the success of former King Hussein in creating and maintaining harmonious coexistence with Israel. King Hussein’s drafting of UN Resolution 242 led to Israel’s withdrawal from Arab lands. This diplomatic process was further cemented by a pragmatic peace treaty signed between Jordan and Israel in 1994.

As an Arab state, Jordan’s status as a US ally may be less stigmatized by its neighbors than Israel’s, while a Palestinian population may also make Jordan a more welcoming host to Palestinian negotiators. However, should Jordan wish to reach out, it may struggle to circumvent talk of the unwanted ‘Jordan Option’, especially given its recent practice of stripping Palestinian-Jordanians of citizenship. Further, Jordan may or may not wish to tie itself up in a protracted peace process as the growth of Syrian refugees continues.

As the Arab Spring spreads its heat into summer, rival claims to Jordan may well be driven not by historical accuracy or geographical precision but by outside interests and negligence, internal frustration and regional desperation. 

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