Israel’s West Bank annexation plan hits raw nerve in Jordan

The kingdom has long been wary of turning into ‘alternative homeland’ for Palestinians

epa07111100 An Israeli soldier keeps watch near Naharayim area, northern Jordan valley, Israel, 22 October 2018. King Abdullah II of Jordan said on 21 October that his country would not renew part of its peace agreement with Israel, which granted Israel a 25-year lease on the two small pieces of land Baquoura and Ghumar near the countries' shared border. Israel occupied the two areas in 1950 and 1967, respectively, and the 1994 peace treaty recognized Jordan's sovereignty over the lands while allowing Israel to continue to use them.  EPA/ATEF SAFADI
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to annex a large part of the occupied West Bank if he wins next week's election brought fears in Jordan of another Palestinian influx, as chances for a two-state solution were damaged once again.

Concerns about turning into “an alternative homeland” has defined Jordanian politics for decades, contributing to a landmark decision in 1988 by the late King Hussein to dissolve a 38-year union between the occupied West Bank and Jordan.

Jordanians of Palestinian origin make up a large proportion of Jordan’s 10.4 million population but the possibility of more Palestinians arriving is sensitive in Jordan.

The country's demographics has steadily changed since the first Palestinian refugees arrived in Jordan during the creation of Israel in 1948.

In an announcement designed to bolster his right-wing electoral base, Mr Netanyahu promised on Tuesday to annex the Jordan Valley, comprising a quarter of the occupied West Bank, if he is re-elected on September 17.

The area offers West Bank Palestinians the only access to Jordan, through the Allenby Bridge.

Mr Netanyahu did not see any contradiction with the long-awaited peace plan of US President Donald Trump, saying the Jordan Valley was important to “our security, our heritage and our future”.

Jordan's King Abdullah II and Queen Rania arrive for lunch ahead of a meeting with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-CA, in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on June 26, 2018. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)
Jordan's King Abdullah and his wife Queen Rania while on a visit to Capitol Hill in Washington, June 2018. The monarch, like his father, has balanced close ties with Washington and understandings with Israel with public support for the Palestinian cause. AFP

On its west side, the Jordan Valley has an estimated 11,000 settlers and 65,000 Palestinians, Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem says.

About 22,000 of them live in the ancient city of Jericho, which Mr Netanyahu said would have some sort of self-rule.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Mr Netanyahu was embarking on a  "serious escalation".

Jordanian intellectual Adnan Abu Odeh, a former head of the Royal Court, said the plan “puts Jordan at the heart of the challenge”.

“What will they do with the people?” Mr Abu Odeh asks.

Most of the Palestinians in Jordan are members or descendants of the diaspora that fled their homes in Israel or the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Another wave arrived in 1991, expelled from Kuwait in 1991 in response to Yasser Arafat’s support for the Iraqi invasion of the country.

Unlike most countries in the Levant that kept Palestinian refugees officially disenfranchised, Jordan granted most of its Palestinian inhabitants citizenship.

Iraqi refugees arrived in the 1990s and 2000s followed by Syrian refugees in 2011-2014. They and the Palestinians became a major part of the economy, despite increasing pressure on public services and the education system.

Jordan ardently supports the two-state solution and has opposed Mr Trump’s approach to the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In 1994, Jordan became the second, and so far the last, Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel, bringing Jordan debt relief, military assistance from Washington, open trade and large amounts of US aid.

The Palestinian cause has helped to vent Jordanians' frustration amid at least 18 per cent unemployment, high debt and an economy that has slowed for the past five years.

The authorities have allowed demonstrations denouncing Israel, while at the same time guarding the peace treaty and ignoring domestic calls to stop buying gas from Israel.

Jordan will aim to navigate through the latest Israeli threat to the status quo as an ally of the US and a strategic country with the longest border with Israel, while strongly defending Palestinian rights and hoping for a less ideological government to come to power in its neighbour.