|Jordan-Israel peace treaty : 12 years on
|What was, for Jordan, a historical landmark 12 years ago is now barely a footnote in the mired peace process that has become as elusive as it is necessary.
Few Jordanian commentators bothered to write about the 12th anniversary of the signing of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty on October 26, 1994.
And those who did lamented the fact that the Middle East today is still far from reaching a just and comprehensive peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Some even went as far as to question the validity of maintaining the peace accord when Israel’s unilateral plan of disengagement in the West Bank is seen as a direct threat to the stability of the Kingdom by facilitating mass transfer of Palestinians to Jordan.
What was, for Jordan, a historical landmark 12 years ago is now barely a footnote in the mired peace process that has become as elusive as it is necessary. On the bilateral level Jordan and Israel have managed to maintain a semblance of normal state-to-state relationship. Embassies are open for business and citizens from both countries are still able to cross the common borders, although the numbers are meager compared to those of the mid-1990s.
Bilateral trade is around $50 million annually, a small figure for both economies. But at the popular level, peace between Jordan and Israel is anything but warm. Jordanian anti-normalization campaigns reached their zenith by the end of the 1990s and by the time they subsided the second Palestinian Intifada and the election of Ariel Sharon as Israel’s prime minister in 2000 acted as instigators to revive anti-Israel sentiments in the media and kept relations at a minimum level. Sharon’s arrival at the center stage of Israeli politics and his hawkish attitude towards the PNA and its leader Yasser Arafat, and especially his rejection of the key principles of the peace process agreed upon in Oslo and Washington few years earlier, alienated both Jordan and Egypt from the Israeli political establishment.
At the height of the second Intifada, Amman and Cairo took escalatory diplomatic steps, short of closing their embassies, to express their indignation with Sharon’s policies. In the mid of these tense anti-Israeli attitudes, Jordan attempted to mediate between the Palestinians and Israel in a bid to revive the peace process.
Against calls to recall the Jordanian ambassador in Tel Aviv and close down the embassy, the Jordanian leadership argued that such moves would only hurt the Palestinians and deny them the third party they need to bring pressure to bear on Israel. While relations with Israel’s Sharon were less amiable than with his predecessor, Jordan was able to exercise some influence on the Likud-led government but not without US backing. In June 2003 King Abdullah hosted the Aqaba summit, which was attended by President George Bush, Sharon and the newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
It was a last ditch attempt to launch the road map for peace and bring an end to the Intifada and Israel’s crushing response to it. In spite of the hopeful statements, promises and gestures, little was to change on the ground. The King continues to use his close relationship with the Bush administration to promote Jordan’s desire to see a quick resumption of the peace process. In the summer of 2006 he managed to bring Sharon’s successor Ehud Olmert and Abbas together for the first time in Petra for an informal meeting.
Again the peace process remained bogged down. By the same token it was Jordan that spearheaded a legal battle in 2004 at the International Court of Justice to declare the separation barrier that Israel was building in the West Bank illegal. Jordan was acting out of self-interest since it was deemed that the wall will eventually drive Palestinians out of their homeland and into the Kingdom. The court ruled against Israel. For Jordan, concluding a formal peace treaty with Israel was a multi-layered strategic objective. Delineating permanent borders with the Jewish state, and partially resolving related issues such as water, meant that Jordan could put to rest fears of a future war with its powerful neighbor to the west. It also assured Jordanians that the future state for the Palestinians would be created in the occupied territories and not across the Jordan River. These were two existential issues that had haunted the Kingdom since its independence.
Jordan was careful not to conclude its peace treaty with Israel until the Palestinians had negotiated the terms of their political settlement with Israel. Having done that in Oslo, the signing of the Wadi Araba agreement served to tie up the loose ends left after the 1988 disengagement decision. For Jordan it was important to show that this was no unilateral peace agreement. Although the treaty addressed issues like borders, security, normalization and trade, it tied the resolution of the more difficult problems of Palestinian refugees and East Jerusalem to a future solution.
But while Jordan’s efforts to re-launch the Palestinian-Israeli peace process have not met with success, especially after Hamas’ victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections and subsequent forming of the government, working relations with successive Israeli governments remained good. Regional and global developments since 2000, foremost among which are the threat of international terror, Islamist extremism and the US invasion of Iraq, have brought new and shared challenges to the forefront and pushed towards synergy especially in the security cooperation arena. Jordan’s alliance with the United States has grown closer since the signing of the peace treaty, but especially under the Bush administration. But so has the Kingdom’s economic reliance on Washington.
Since Jordan signed the peace treaty with Israel it was forgiven an estimated $700 million it owed to the United States. It also receives approximately $450 million annually in foreign aid (it received over $1 billion in 2003 alone) and enjoys a special free trade status with the US. Along with Egypt, which was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Jordan is perceived as a key US ally in the war against terror and Islamist extremism. Its regional policies, vis-à-vis Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories are not so distant from those followed by Washington. Such proximity to the US and Washington’s special relationship with Israel have contributed to a new perception of the Middle East by US policy makers in which Jordan, Egypt and Israel find themselves lumped together—often to the embarrassment of the first two.
That perception is cemented by the hypothesis, perpetuated by some Israeli scholars that like Israel, Jordan, and to some extent Egypt, find themselves in the same trench facing common enemies such as al-Qaeda and Iran. When critics speak of the unfulfilled economic fruits of peace with Israel they fail to mention the financial privileges that Jordan had gained in the past 12 years through its close ties with the United States. Still, they are right to point out that in terms of trade with Israel the figures are modest and disappointing. The vision of Jordan becoming a gateway for Israel to enter Gulf markets has proved ludicrous. In the wake of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1997 and the election of Sharon in 2000, Israel began moving away from its commitments to the Palestinians. It also became clear that it was unwilling to make any concessions which involved implementing UN resolutions in return for a comprehensive peace with the Arabs.
Sharon rejected the Arab peace initiative of 2002 and took steps to reverse most Palestinian gains under the historic Washington peace agreement of 1993. The region has undergone tremendous change since the singing of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, yet the accord withstood mounting challenges. Twelve years on it is difficult to conclude if the treaty has indeed become a burden on Jordan’s shoulders, as some commentators believe.
Some issues remain unsolved between the two countries foremost of which is the fate of scores of Jordanian detainees in Israeli jails. But the biggest challenge to bilateral relations remains the fate of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. As Israel continues to turn its back to its commitments to the Palestinians, and as it implements illegal steps to partition and divide the West Bank, Jordanian fears of a Palestinian exodus into the Kingdom increase. In a volatile Middle East, Israel’s unilateral measures in the occupied territories constitute the biggest threat to the future of its peace treaty with Jordan.
Osama Al Sharif