Jordan pursues multi-track quest to prevent Israel-Palestine chaos

Flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian violence shows limits to kingdom's outsize role

Israeli President Isaac Herzog arrives at a royal palace in Amman on March 30, 2022. Reuters
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A diplomatic drive led by Jordan’s King Abdullah II to calm tension in Palestine relies on the outsize influence of the small kingdom but faces limits in a region full of big players.

As attacks by Palestinian extremists killed a dozen people in Israel this month, both Israel’s president and defence minister visited King Abdullah’s palace on the outskirts of Amman.

In an apparent nod to Jordanian demands to ease restrictions on Muslims in Jerusalem during Ramadan, Israeli President Isaac Herzog told the king that “we must move towards enabling everyone to practice their beliefs in safety, in security, in calm circumstances".

Ramadan is expected to start around April 1. Israeli actions against Palestinians at Al Aqsa Mosque resulted in an 11-day war last Ramadan that resulted in hundreds of deaths.

The conflict soured ties between Jordan and Israel, which signed a peace treaty in 1994, and allowed the Iran-backed militant group Hamas to tout their claim that only force guarantees Palestinian rights.

Officials from Jordan and Israel also discussed in recent weeks detailed Jordanian proposals on how Israel can lift restrictions on Palestinians that hamper economic activity and their daily lives, a Jordanian official said.

These include allowing prayer assembly in Jerusalem during Ramadan, giving Palestinians more work permits and easing Israeli roadblocks, he said.

“The political and economic horizon for the Palestinians has become so narrow that any incident can lead a new war with regional magnifications,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

“Restoring calm is essential,” he said. “We are trying to prevent the sparks from flying.”

Historical balancing act

Jordan regards its interests as tied to the political fortunes of Palestinians across the River Jordan, whom it views as under threat of another Israeli expulsion.

Many of Jordan’s 10 million people are of Palestinian origin, whose ancestors fled to Jordan, mainly amid the conflicts in 1948 and 1967. Amman is a second home to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

The war last year undermined Mr Abbas by making him appear as a bystander, although he briefly suspended security co-operation with Israel.

The official suggested that another war could be too much for an already beleaguered Palestinian Authority.

Israeli security forces killed two Palestinians in a West Bank raid on Thursday, while a third Palestinian was killed after reportedly trying to stab passengers on a bus.

Hamas said that its response would be “escalating the resistance and confrontations with the occupation".

“The PA are under a lot of pressure,” the Jordanian official said and added that there the kingdom had no political contacts with Hamas.

Jordan has close security contacts with Israel and relies on the country to supply it with water.

But since the prelude to the Hamas-Israel war last year, Jordanian officials have been vocal in criticising Israeli actions they say could lead to another wave of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, making it an “alternative homeland” that enables a complete Israeli takeover of Palestine.

The alternative homeland scenario also has domestic ramifications in Jordan, particularly among tribes that underpin the political and security system and seek to preserve their influence in the kingdom.

The Jordanian official said Amman has vital domestic factors to consider when it comes to Palestine and Israel.

But he suggested that the kingdom's foreign policy has to take into account its alliance with the US and Washington's vital contribution in shoring up the economy of Jordan, which retreated sharply in the past decade.

Watching Israeli politics

Relations between Jordan and Israel have improved since the departure of the ultra-hardline government of Benjamin Netanyahu in mid-2021.

But the Jordanian official indicated that the current Israeli Cabinet is too fragmented to make a major break with legacy Netanyahu policies. This could hold back the resumption of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, he said.

Attention to the Palestinian issue has also been affected by Arab normalisation with Israel and the war in Ukraine.

Jordan was invited — but did not attend — an Iran-centric international meeting in Negev, Israel, this week. The meeting was between senior ministers from the UAE, Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and the US.

A diplomat in Amman said that had a Jordanian delegation gone to Negev, its presence would have been at odds with policy of focusing on the Palestinian issue.

“The image would have been not right,” the diplomat said.

Jordan has been banking on other regional initiatives to improve its strategic position, seeking to improve ties with the regime of President Al Assad in Syria, as well as Iraq and Lebanon.

A US regional plan to supply power-starved Lebanon with electricity envisioned running Jordanian electricity supplies through Syrian regime areas.

Jordanian officials said that the electricity would be flowing to Lebanon by March.

But another diplomat in Beirut said Lebanon has not yet obtained World Bank funding to pay for the electricity.

“It is complicated,” the diplomat said. “The electricity might flow in a few months, or never.”

In Lebanon and Palestine, as well as Syria and Iraq, Jordanian officials may have underestimated the dysfunction plaguing the region.

Updated: April 01, 2022, 8:41 AM