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Jordan can't afford to pay for Israel's problems

Jordan can't afford to pay for Israel's problems

The fantastical idea that Amman should give up land for a new Palestine won't go away.

Analysis | Middle East

Israeli hardliners often argue that, instead of an independent state, Palestinians should accept Jordan as their homeland. (After all, Jordan used to rule over the West Bank, and many Jordanians have Palestinian roots.) The most moderate version of this plan involves putting parts of the West Bank that Israel doesn’t want back under Jordanian rule. The most extreme version involves physically expelling Palestinians to Jordan.

Despite the lack of Jordanian or Palestinian consent, the idea of Jordan as a Palestinian homeland continues to float around in Israeli nationalist circles. And it’s gaining traction in unexpected corners of Washington, too. Last month, the liberal-leaning publication Just Security published a “creative, outside-the-box proposal” along those lines by Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the centrist Atlantic Council.

“Some [Israeli] settlements [in the West Bank] and the land they’re on are inevitably going to be retained by Israel in any agreement. And the number Israel will insist on retaining increases every year,” Panikoff wrote. Without those lands, Palestine cannot be a viable, independent state. Panikoff’s solution is to replace the land lost to settlements by giving Palestine some Jordanian territory.

In return, Jordan would get some Saudi territory as well as economic concessions. To seal the deal, the Jordanian monarchy would be asked to share its most prized heirloom — custodianship over Jerusalem’s holy sites — with Saudi royals.

The proposal is worse than asking Jordan to sell its birthright for a mess of pottage. It demands Jordanians to risk the violent collapse of their country. The last attempt to build a Palestinian state within Jordan, the Black September uprising of 1970, ended in a bitter (but mercifully short-lived) civil war. And, the land that Panikoff has in mind, the Jordan River Valley, is the nation’s breadbasket. Jordan is already a water-poor country; without the river and the fertile land around it, the nation would face an environmental apocalypse. Just a few miles to the east, Jordan’s landscape becomes a black desert unsuitable for large populations.

Panikoff’s proposal is the symptom of a myopia in Washington about the Middle East. American policymakers often see Israeli interests as existential issues that must be treated with the utmost care. Meanwhile, Arab states, even U.S.-friendly ones, are rarely viewed in the same light. Their vital interests are often treated as goodies that can be traded away. No think-tanker would ask Israel to give up Tel Aviv for Jordan’s sake, but Panikoff can casually propose the dismantling of Jordan for Israel’s sake.

Washington has gotten used to forcing the rest of the Middle East to accommodate Israeli interests. For ideological reasons, American politicians believe that they have a responsibility to protect Israel, which they see as a tiny, vulnerable nation surrounded by powerful Arab enemies. That image is decades out of date. Many regional states, and their citizens, are much more vulnerable to Israeli attack than the other way around.

For example, Israeli leaders often say that they need the settlements to maintain “defensible borders.” Otherwise, Israeli cities like Tel Aviv would sit under a Damocles sword, less than 20 miles away from Arab territory. But Jordan is similarly vulnerable. The Israeli army is perched just 20 miles away from Amman, the Jordanian capital, and Irbid, the second-largest city. The country’s only port, Aqaba, is a 10-mile strip of coastline squeezed between the Israeli and Saudi borders. Just a few miles to the east of the border, Jordan’s land becomes a black desert unsuitable for large populations.

So when Israeli politicians float the possibility of expelling Palestinians en masse towards Jordan, or stand in front of a map showing Jordan as part of “Greater Israel,” Jordanians have every reason to understand it as a threat with potential life-and-death consequences. After all, the West Bank has been part of Jordan when Israeli forces invaded and conquered it in 1967. But no one suggests chopping up Israeli territory so Jordanians can feel safer.

Jordan is not the only Israeli neighbor living under this kind of menace. Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon have all had territory invaded and occupied by Israeli forces. Although the United States in the past has tried to restrain both sides, U.S. policy today focuses entirely on ensuring Israeli dominance over Arab states. While Israeli officials threaten to take Lebanon “back to the Stone Age,” and Israeli warplanes loudly penetrate Lebanese airspace, Washington debates how to disempower the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and foster a Lebanese military that does not threaten Israel.

Jordan and Egypt are unique because the United States considers them “major non-NATO allies.” The U.S. government has showered special praise on Jordan for its commitment to “shared strategic goals,” and in theory considers the stability of Jordan an American interest. For that matter, Jordan has done a lot to seek peace with Israel on the terms that Washington prefers. The Jordanian government signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, gave up its claims to the West Bank, and absorbed Palestinian refugees into Jordanian society. Thirty years later, Israeli nationalists and their American backers seem willing to punish Jordan for its cooperation.

Ironically, Jordan accepted the 1994 treaty to avoid bearing the costs of the Palestinian issue. As former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher explained in a recent interview, the kingdom gave up its claims to the West Bank in order to establish a permanent border and put to rest the notion that Jordan would be an “alternative [Palestinian] homeland.” With Amman out of the picture, Israelis and Palestinians were supposed to resolve their problems within the confines of Israel and Palestine.

Panikoff warns that continued Israeli rule over the West Bank “would risk the end of Israel’s identity as a majority Jewish state.” But the Israeli settlements are not the immovable object that Panikoff portrays them as. Of course, leaving thousands of Israeli citizens under Palestinian rule — or evacuating them before handing the territory over — would be politically painful for Israel. That is an Israeli, not a Jordanian, problem.

If Israel really wants to disengage from the West Bank and avoid sharing a state with Palestinians, it will find a way to do so. There is no moral or practical case for making Jordan bear the costs. Panikoff’s proposal is really ideological, based on the American belief that Israeli discomfort matters more than Arab suffering.

At least threatening Israel’s Syrian and Lebanese opponents follows some strategic logic, since they are also U.S. opponents. To play games with the stability of Jordan, a friendly state, makes no sense at all. To do so for the sake of Israeli settlements is just blind fanaticism.

Unspalsh/Creative Commons

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden meet with King Abdullah II, Queen Rania, and the Crown Prince Al Hussein Bin Abdullah II of Jordan on Monday, July 19, 2021, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Analysis | Middle East
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