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Could the Failure of the Oslo Process Doom Israel’s Friendship With Jordan?

With no good options on the horizon, Jerusalem and Amman are on a collision course over the Palestinian issue

Assaf David
September 23, 2013
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jordan's King Abdullah II listen to remarks after holding meetings with President Barack Obama on restarting Middle East peace talks Sept. 1, 2010, at the White House.(Chris Kleponis/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jordan's King Abdullah II listen to remarks after holding meetings with President Barack Obama on restarting Middle East peace talks Sept. 1, 2010, at the White House.(Chris Kleponis/AFP/Getty Images)

The two-decade-old formula of “two states for two peoples” is dead, and the Arab Spring witnessed its funeral. What seemed, less than three years ago, a powerful show of citizen agency throughout the region has instead devolved into uncertainty, bringing chaos to the doorstep not just of Israel but of the West Bank and Jordan as well.

Stuck in the eye of the storm, the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian triangle has weathered it in relative calm. Indeed, the crisis in Syria has driven Jordan and Israel back to each other’s arms—for now. More than at any time since the 1950s, Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy now depends on the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel for its security. However, the Syria contingency only conceals the harsh reality: A serious wedge—the collapse of the two-state solution—has widened the gap between Jordan and Israel to a point where the two states are ultimately locked in a zero-sum game.

Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and up until Jordan’s disengagement from the West Bank in 1987, the two countries have shared the job of “managing” the Palestinian issue. Now, as leaders on both sides begin to internalize the death of a Palestinian state under the Oslo process, the critical observer realizes that the next confrontation will necessarily have to be between these two states. The winner will be the one who survives the resolution of the Palestinian “problem”—Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, or Jordan, as a constitutional monarchy under Hashemite rule.

It hasn’t always been like this. In fact, Israel and Jordan have shared interests since their establishment: Western leanings and mutual objection to the idea of Palestinian nationalism and sovereignty. The Israeli-Jordanian strategic partnership has survived numerous tests, including Arab-Israeli wars and repeated Palestinian uprisings. However, the relationship between the two states has lately deteriorated for a number of reasons, the main one being the recurrent failure of the Israelis and the Palestinians to move forward with a peace settlement.

For years, it’s been widely accepted that the Oslo framework remains the best means of securing durable statehood for both Jews and Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. However, the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, the second Palestinian uprising, the aftermath of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and the widening Hamas-Fatah rift rendered the two-state solution unlikely to materialize in the eyes of many in Israel, no matter how crucial it is to securing the Jewish-democratic nature of the country. The eruption of the Arab Spring has prompted Israel’s political and military elite to hunker down, with a “wait-and-see” attitude. Increasingly, for the Palestinians in the West Bank, ending Israel’s military occupation is much more pressing than establishing a “state,” per se. Demilitarized and completely dependent on its neighbors, a Palestinian state would in any realistic circumstance look more like upgraded self-rule rather than true sovereignty. In other words, Israel needs the two-state solution in order to secure its vital interests but won’t move forward with it, and the Palestinians can secure their vital interests without a state on only 22 percent of Mandatory Palestine. That leaves the Jordanians at risk of ending up the biggest losers.


Jordan today is a long way from where it was in 1993, or 1999, or even 2008, the last time negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians appeared to be going anywhere. The regional and the domestic challenges that it faces are enormous, and the Hashemite regime depends on the dedicated support of Saudi Arabia, the United States, and to some extent Israel in order to survive.

The biggest challenge to the country’s stability today is the influx of refugees from Syria. An estimated 550,000 refugees have crossed the border so far, swamping the country’s already-fragile civic infrastructure. The Al Za’tari refugee camp, containing only a small portion of these refugees, is the second-largest refugee camp in the world and the fourth-most-populous city in Jordan. It is a humanitarian nightmare for its dwellers and a focus of criminal and terrorist activity in the eyes of the Jordanian authorities.

The bigger question for the Hashemites is what will happen if these people remain permanently in Jordan, changing the makeup and balance of Jordan’s population and turning the Transjordanians, the historic backbone of the regime, into an even smaller minority. Previous waves of refugees—the Palestinians in 1948, 1967, and 1990-1991 and Iraqis from 2003 to 2007—have made the Transjordanians highly apprehensive of the dangers to their socioeconomic status and even national identity. Rather than strengthening support for the Hashemite monarchy, their anxiety has fed existing resentment toward the regime, which has been deadlocked over necessary political and economic reforms proposed by King Abdullah.

So, Jordan desperately needs a Palestinian state in order to preserve its own “Jordanianness”—an issue that is not, in the end, of much concern to the Israelis. The Hashemites know that and cannot be comforted by the thought that in the event a Palestinian state fails to materialize, Israel may eventually have to choose between being Jewish or democratic. If no Palestinian state is created and worse comes to worst, Israel will take care of its own interests even at the expense of its Hashemite allies.

In fact, there are signs that this is already happening. A growing number of Israeli conservatives believe the solution to the Palestinian issue lies in officially recognizing Jordan as the Palestinian state. Naftali Bennett, who chairs the conservative HaBayit HaYehudi party, called prior to the 2013 elections for annexing parts of the West Bank to Israel and leaving the rest for Jordan to grapple with—the idea being that it puts the onus on Jordan, and its Arab supporters, to accommodate the Palestinians, rather than on Israel. The general idea has become so acceptable that even former top politicians and military generals of the political mainstream are openly suggesting that Jordan at least take part in the administration of the Palestinian territories in order to help Israel end the occupation.

Jordan, at its own insistence, hasn’t been party to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at all; indeed, its government routinely insists that only Israel and the Palestinians be at the table, even though the outcome affects its own vital interests, particularly where the borders, the question of refugees, and the final status of Jerusalem are concerned. The regime’s sensitivity to the confederation debate in Israel only reflects the questions it faces domestically: Can Jordan secure its interests in the final status agreement without being part of it? Can it secure the stabilization of the West Bank without taking part in its administration? Isn’t the kingdom already a de facto Jordanian-Palestinian confederation given that at least half its population is of Palestinian origin, and that these people will remain in Jordan under any conceivable settlement with Israel? These questions are constantly debated in Jordan, suggesting that the very idea of a Jordanian-Palestinian path to resolution of post-1967 issues isn’t entirely out of the question.

Indeed, in 2005, Abdul Salam al-Majali, Jordan’s former prime minister and a signatory to the 1994 peace agreement with Israel, presented a detailed plan for a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation that would encompass both banks of the Jordan River. Majali even discussed his plan with political figures in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with the tacit approval of King Abdullah. The plan stirred a heated debate in Jordan, leading Abdullah to believe that it was still too sensitive; he subsequently killed it but could not kill the public debate. However, in Israel, the proponents of Israeli-Palestinian peace are deaf to the Jordanian domestic debate, and the opponents of such peace simply want to throw the Palestinian problem into Jordan’s yard. Therefore, no real dialogue exists between Israeli and Jordanian intellectuals and NGOs, not to mention governments, on the confederation issue.

A future confederation between a Palestinian entity and Jordan is neither futile nor impractical, especially not when compared to the complications obviously presented by the two-state “solution.” It seems that all the parties involved might, under some circumstances and preconditions, entertain it. The most important of these for Jordan and the Palestinians is that the confederation would not be the dream scenario of the Israeli right wing: unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank to Israel and de facto presumption that Jordan will be drawn into managing the remaining Palestinian territory to preserve order. That scenario would make both Jordan and the Palestinians Israel’s worst enemy—something Israel’s leaders don’t really want, either.

A confederation would not be an easy way out for any of the three parties. To get Jordan in, Israel would likely have to agree to something close to the 1967 borders, potentially with a land swap on a one-to-one basis, which would mean evacuating Jewish settlers from the West Bank and giving up on East Jerusalem. However, the confederation might be easier for all the parties to accept at this point than any of the various scenarios involving an independent Palestine.

Since the problem has always been an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian one, the solution will have to be trilateral too—but all three parties are practically paralyzed. No effective outside pressure looms in the foreseeable future. Conservative political parties in Israel, as well as the Israeli government, live under the false impression that the status quo ante is tenable and at the moment have the comfort of knowing that the Palestinian problem is relatively less urgent than Syria, Iran’s nuclear program, and the ongoing merry-go-round of post-Arab Spring turmoil in Egypt and elsewhere. Israeli conservatives hardly give a second thought to the immorality of the occupation—and hardly worry about the inevitability of forced solution in the event that no action is taken by the parties.

Does this mean that catastrophe is imminent for Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians? Hopefully the answer will be no.


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Dr. Assaf David, an expert on Jordan, teaches in the department of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Dr. Assaf David, an expert on Jordan, teaches in the department of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.