Jordan in a delicate balancing act amid Israel-Gaza war

King Abdullah tours western capitals as Washington draws post-conflict scenarios

Police members block a road in an attempt to prevent protesters from reaching a border zone with the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in Amman, Jordan. Reuters
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Jordanian businessman Marwan Al Amjad had to cancel lunch with potential clients last week at a farm retreat he owns near the border with Israel.

Security forces had erected roadblocks in the area to prevent people from demonstrating against Israel’s operation in Gaza.

Cars heading to the area from Amman were turned back.

“They would have let me through because they know me. But I was not sure about my guests,” Mr Al Amjad told The National.

Jordanians’ reaction to the war is closely watched in Israel, as well as in the US, where the conflict has revived interest in talks on a two-state solution to the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli crisis

Official statements from Amman have echoed popular anger at the operation, and Jordanian authorities have also allowed donations for aid to Gaza. Some demonstrations have been allowed, but not near the border or US interests.

This balancing act between maintaining external alliances and assuaging the population in relation to the conflict in Palestine has been a feature of politics in Jordan since it was founded in 1921.

Pragmatic approach

A large proportion of the population are of Palestinian origin, mostly the descendants of refugees who entered the country in 1948 and 1967.

Their anger over the war in Gaza, however, is widely shared with the rest of the population. They are mostly members of tribes who were present when Jordan was carved out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Now, they underpin the security forces and bureaucracy.

One notable demonstration on Friday was called by the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab, politico-religious organisation that spawned Hamas in the 1980s. Unlike in most other Arab countries, the Muslim Brotherhood is tolerated in Jordan.

Official media has been portraying Hamas as a legitimate resistance movement, although Amman deemed its leaders a security threat in 1999 and expelled them to Syria, while maintaining channels with senior figures in the group.

Behind the scenes, the authorities “are not discounting that Hamas has set itself up for defeat in Gaza”, a high-level source told The National.

“Jordan cannot afford to be left out if America gets its way after the war.”

Average income in the kingdom is $4,300, about 8 per cent that of Israel's. The two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994. Israel supplies the kingdom with its gas, and large amounts of its water. The kingdom is also dependent on Washington for aid, and for its security.

Seeking a say in any new postwar Middle East order, King Abdullah visited Washington this week.

He met President Joe Biden at the White House, despite Washington’s focus on players who are better connected with Hamas, mainly Qatar and Egypt, in pursuit of a ceasefire and release of hostages taken by the group on October 7.

Regional security analyst Saud Sharafat says although Jordan is unable to contribute to Washington’s immediate objectives, the king’s strategic position may have been enhanced by events in recent weeks.

Weak spot

Seeking to influence any new postwar regional order, King Abdullah visited the US last week. He met President Joe Biden at the White House, while the US continues to also engage players with closer ties to Hamas – mainly Qatar and Egypt – in pursuit of a ceasefire agreement and the release of hostages taken by the group on October 7.

Regional security analyst Saud Sharafat told The National that although Jordan may not contribute to Washington’s immediate objectives, recent events may have raised the importance of the kingdom’s strategic position.

Late last month, three US soldiers were killed at a base in Jordan, near the borders with Iraq and Syria, in a drone attack Washington attributed to an Iran-backed Iraqi militia.

Amman, Mr Sharafat said, had been warning the US for years, without any robust response, that Iran’s proxies were likely to carry out a cross-border attack, having built up capabilities near north-eastern Jordan.

After the Gaza war began, Iran moved to open regional fronts against Israel and the US, with the declared aim of reducing pressure on Hamas, which has moved closer to Tehran over the past decade.

Mr Sharafat said that since last month’s attack, the US may be more likely to respond to Jordan’s requests for enhanced defensive capabilities. This view contrasts with many in Jordan who say that the attack occurred because that particular US target, only a few hundred metres inside Jordan’s border with Syria, was vulnerable.

“That attack was not just on US forces. It was on Jordan,” said Mr Sharafat. “Iran could open a front from Syria and Iraq against Jordan any time. It has the capability. Thousands of its militias are there.

Jordan is working to prevent its north-east from becoming a “weak underbelly”, Mr Sharafat said, especially if the US withdraws its troops from Iraq, creating a vacuum that will be filled by the Iranian proxies.

Regional reach

Apart from defence, Jordan seeks to ensure its place in any economic arrangements that the US and its allies could set up as part of a permanent post-Gaza war settlement, as long as Hamas is degraded to a point that it cannot spoil the deal, Mr Sharafat said.

However, if the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) succumbs to Israeli pressure and ceases its operations, this would be problematic for Amman, he added.

After his visit to Washington, King Abdullah met Canadian and British leaders in Ottawa and London. Both countries are major donors to the UNRWA, as is Germany, where the King travelled on Friday to attend the Munich Security Conference.

Mr Sharafat said King Abdullah also wants to ensure that the Hashemite claim as custodians of Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is not affected by any postwar development, especially one that results in a larger role for Arab states.

Al Aqsa is the most evocative and religiously significant place for Muslims in the Palestinian territories.

The Hashemites’ relationship with Al Aqsa has also become an element of Jordanian foreign policy, while both a responsibility and addition to the country’s standing in the Middle East and beyond.

The hereditary claim dates back to 1924, when Palestinian religious leaders gave Sharif Hussein bin Ali, King Abdullah’s great grandfather, custodianship over Al Aqsa after he played a major role in renovating the shrine.

“The custodianship issue is paramount for the king,” Mr Sharafat said.

Updated: February 18, 2024, 6:40 PM