Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Falling Out

Israel and Jordan once worked together for peace. Now their alliance is collapsing, driven apart by the issue of refugee resettlement, and Jordan may be turning to Iran.

Asher Susser
January 11, 2011
Clockwise from top left: King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin, 1994; King Abdullah and Ariel Sharon, 2005; Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah, 2010; King Abdullah and Ehud Barak.(Clockwise from top left: Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images; Yusef Allan/Jordanian Royal Court/Getty Images; Israel GPO/AFP/Getty Images; Brian Hendler/Getty Images)
Clockwise from top left: King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin, 1994; King Abdullah and Ariel Sharon, 2005; Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah, 2010; King Abdullah and Ehud Barak.(Clockwise from top left: Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images; Yusef Allan/Jordanian Royal Court/Getty Images; Israel GPO/AFP/Getty Images; Brian Hendler/Getty Images)

Jordan and Israel sought for decades, at times in partnership, to contain the Palestinian national movement. Both countries shared a fear of being overwhelmed by Palestinian demography, political hostility, and politically motivated violence. One historian described Jordan and Israel as “the best of enemies”; another went so far as to accuse the two countries of “collusion” against the Palestinians.

Yet Western observers who are used to seeing Israel and Jordan as bound by common interests are missing a new reality that has overtaken the cooperative relationships of the past: The common fear of being overwhelmed by Palestinian demography is now driving the two countries apart. As Jordan’s position on Palestinian refugees is becoming one of the more strident in the Arab world, the two countries now hold diametrically opposing views on an issue that both sides regard as truly existential, touching the raw nerves of their collective beings and promising future discord: Jordan wants large-scale repatriation; while Israel rejects the so-called right of return.

The roots of the current Jordanian view lie in the country’s domestic demographic and political situation. Palestinians and their descendants probably form a majority of the Jordanian population but are barred from meaningful political power—a situation that in turn has roots in Jordan’s own historically ambiguous relationship to Palestine. After occupying the West Bank in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Jordan formally annexed the territory, with Israeli acquiescence, in April 1950. Despite Israel’s entreaties to Jordan to refrain from intervening in the June War of 1967, the Jordanians, following their own domestic and pan-Arab calculations, decided to join Nasser’s anti-Israeli alliance but then lost the West Bank in the fighting that ensued.

Jordan’s loss of the West Bank was a historical watershed for the Hashemite kingdom and for Israel. Jordan’s manipulative control of what remained of Arab Palestine took a back seat to the PLO’s homegrown version of Palestinian nationalism. It was the PLO’s war against Israel, waged from Jordanian territory, that kept Palestinian hopes alive against the background of the humiliating 1967 defeat of the Arab states. In the process, the PLO gradually built a Palestinian state within a state in Jordan, challenged Jordanian sovereignty, and called the very existence of the Hashemite kingdom into question.

Matters came to a head in September 1970 when the Jordanians mobilized their military power to crush PLO forces in Jordan within what became known as “Black September.” Israel played a critical role in the September events by conducting military maneuvers designed to pressure the Syrians to withdraw the force they had sent to Jordan in support of the PLO. Beaten in the battlefield by the Jordanians, and deterred by the Israelis from escalating their involvement, the Syrians pulled back. By July 1971, all PLO forces were expelled from Jordan, never to return.

The Jordanian struggle with the Palestinians was a traumatic event for the Jordanian people and their collective identity. It accelerated the evolution of a much more conscious sense of Jordanianness, defined against the Palestinian “other.” The Palestinians threatened to deny the Jordanians their political patrimony, not in the West Bank but in Jordan itself. A process of Jordanization, or ardanna, was set in motion in Jordan in the early 1970s, culminating in the almost total exclusion of Palestinians from positions of influence in the country’s political elite and the military and domestic security establishments. A functional cleavage came into being in Jordan whereby original Jordanians governed and were the unchallenged masters of all spheres of political influence, while the Palestinians in the kingdom, about half of the population, maybe more, dominated the economy and the private sector.

Over the years a militant and influential ultra-nationalist Jordanian trend has emerged devoted to the eradication of Palestinian influence and, in the long run, to the return of as many Palestinians as possible from Jordan to a future state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza and to Israel proper. Simultaneously with these developments in Jordan, though unrelated to them, Israel’s politics have shifted to the right. The first Likud government came to power in Israel in 1977, and governments of the right have been in power either on their own or together with Labor for much of Israel’s history since. In the past, prominent spokespersons of the Likud did not hide their conviction that Jordan—which was originally part of the British Mandate for Palestine and where people of Palestinian origin are such a large part of the population—ought to become the real Palestinian homeland. From the Jordanian point of view, such talk had the makings of an existential threat.

In response to internal demographics and their understanding of the Israeli political debate, Jordanians have steadily developed an obsessive fear of the “alternative homeland conspiracy,” or mu’amarat al-watan al-badil, and a vital interest in the creation of a Palestinian state. In their analysis, if no Palestinian state comes into being in the West Bank and Gaza, an eventual confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians will culminate in the massive migration or expulsion of Palestinians eastward across the river to Jordan. Such “demographic aggression” would, by the sheer weight of numbers, transform Jordan into a Palestinian state. In this nightmare scenario, the Jordanians, not the Israelis nor the Palestinians, would end up as the great historical losers.

The peace treaty signed between Jordan and Israel under the Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin in October 1994 drew a sigh of relief from Jordanians. The nightmare of the “Jordan is Palestine” or “alternative homeland” theory was gone forever, so they believed. Israel had recognized Jordan’s boundaries and was on the way to the formation of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, in accordance with the Oslo accords signed a year before. Henceforth it would be clear that Palestine was Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, and Jordan was Jordan on the other side of the river. Moreover, peace with Israel would bring prosperity to Jordan and long-term stability to the region.

Jordan’s expectations, however, remained unfulfilled. The peace with Israel could not have been and was not a panacea for Jordan’s structural economic difficulties. Even more disturbing for the Jordanians, Israel and the Palestinians failed in their endeavor to transform the Oslo accords into a final agreement. Worse still, the Israeli-Palestinian track now seems to have reached a dead end.

After the failure of the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000 and the outbreak of the second Intifada, Jordan’s nightmare scenario resurfaced as if the peace treaty with Israel had never been signed. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the consequent perennial threat of Iraqi disintegration, coupled with growing Iranian influence in Iraq and in the region as a whole, severely compounded the Jordanians’ sense of strategic suffocation. The Jordanians now found themselves sandwiched between two poles of regional instability, with the chaos of Iraq to the east and the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum to the west. This was the kind of regional predicament that they had certainly not bargained for after making peace with Israel.

Israel drew its own conclusions from the failure of Oslo. They were, primarily, that the Palestinians were not ready for an end-of-conflict agreement that did not encroach upon Israel proper. The issue with the Palestinians went beyond the occupied territories, particularly because of the Palestinian demand for the right of return for the 1948 refugees. The Israelis countered with a demand of their own, that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people as a guarantee against substantive, as opposed to symbolic, refugee return. This demand was initially made by the government of Ariel Sharon in 2003 and has been repeated by all Israeli governments since. The Benjamin Netanyahu government has upped the ante by demanding such recognition as a precondition for Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian state.

This new Israeli position has been stridently condemned by the Jordanians, who again see the looming specter of final refugee resettlement in Jordan as the forerunner to the “alternative homeland” scenario. Not only is the Israeli position an obstacle to an agreement with Palestinians, they believe, but it threatens to permanently saddle Jordan with a huge Palestinian population.

King Abdullah speaks often of the great urgency of a two-state solution, blaming Israel for the impasse. Jordanian ultra-nationalists, in their fear of Israeli intentions and of the Palestinian presence, go even further, emphasizing the need not only for two states but for refugee return, totally rejecting the notion of long-term resettlement in Jordan. It is they and the Lebanese who were responsible for adding to the Arab Peace Initiative, in 2002 and again in 2007, the absolute “rejection of all forms of [refugee] resettlement” (tawtin in Arabic), which made the initiative virtually impossible for Israel to accept.

For many years Jordan sought the succor of a U.S.-Israeli protective umbrella, but today King Abdullah speaks bitterly of the chilly and deteriorating relationship with Israel. And where Abdullah defiantly warned against the emergent “Shiite crescent” as late as 2004, the Jordanians now appear to be sheepishly going out of their way to pronounce their fealty to Iran, as exemplified most recently by the king’s acceptance of an official invitation to visit Tehran. Is this public eating of crow just a tactical feint of the kind that Jordan has made on countless occasions in the past, or does it portend a more significant shift toward the radical camp? The fact that the question arises at all is a measure of the change that has already taken place.

Asher Susser, a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, is a visiting professor on modern Israel at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Asher Susser, a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, is a visiting professor on modern Israel at the University of Arizona in Tucson.