Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Jordan and Israel: A Wake-up Call along a Quiet Border
Jordan and Israel: A Wake-up Call along a Quiet Border

Jordan and Israel: A Wake-up Call along a Quiet Border

On October 21, Jordan’s King Abdallah II announced that he would not renew two annexes to the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. They deal with two small parcels of land, Naharayim (known in Arabic as al-Baqura), south of the Sea of Galilee near the northern “elbow” of the border between the two countries, and Tzofar (al-Ghamr) along the southern part of the border. Naharayim and Tzofar have enjoyed a “special regime” until now.

“Baqura and Ghamr are Jordanian lands and will remain Jordanian and we will exercise full sovereignty over our territory,” the King said as he announced the decision. “In such difficult regional circumstances, our priorities are to protect our interests and do everything that is necessary for Jordan and Jordanians.” He added later on Twitter that “Baqura and Ghamr have always been at the top of our priorities and our decision is to terminate the annexation of Baqura and Ghamr from the peace treaty is based on our commitment to take all necessary decisions for Jordan and Jordanians.”

(Source: Al Bawaba)

(Source: Al Bawaba)

These areas—covering approximately 1,000 acres—are under Jordanian sovereignty, but are under Israeli control and used by Israelis. They enjoy a unique status in the agreement because they are and have been used by neighboring agricultural settlements, in Naharayim since the 1930s and in Tzofar since the 1970s. This royal decision was confirmed in an emergency session of the Jordanian cabinet, at which the king said Jordan would “exercise full sovereignty” over its land.

While news reports speak of a “lease,” this is not a correct description of the agreement between the two states (there is, for instance, no monetary compensation to Jordan). Annexes 1(b) and (c) have similar language (the differences between them will be addressed later): the two parties agree that a special regime will apply to the area on a temporary basis; the area is under Jordanian sovereignty; Jordan agrees, inter alia, to grant unimpeded freedom of entry and exit within the area to the Israeli landowners and to their invitees or employees; not to apply customs or immigration legislation to landowners, their invitees, or employees crossing from Israel directly to the area for agricultural or any agreed purposes. Israel agrees not to carry out or allow activities prejudicial to the peace or security of Jordan in the areas; not to allow any person entering the area (other than authorized personnel) to carry weapons of any kind; and not to allow the dumping of wastes from outside the area. Israeli law may be applied to Israelis and their activities in the areas.

Most important for this discussion is the clause which says: “Without prejudice to private rights of ownership of land within the area, this Annex will remain in force for 25 years, and shall be renewed automatically for the same periods, unless one year prior notice of termination is given by either Party, in which case, at the request of either Party, consultations shall be entered into.”

Since the agreement had been signed on October 26, 1994, Jordan had to make a decision regarding renewal before October 26, 2018; otherwise, the agreement would be renewed automatically.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the decision that Israel would “enter negotiations with [Jordan] on the possibility of extending the current arrangement.” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the next day that Jordan will not negotiate with Israel regarding renewal of the annexes, but only on implementation of the cancellation.

The Jordanian Aspect

The peace treaty with Israel is an enormous strategic asset for Jordan, and cooperation with Israel is vital for its national security (including a recent multi-billion dollar gas supply deal). However, the Hashemite monarchy has survived by a careful policy of close attention to public opinion (even when it doesn’t always honor it) and careful trimming, certainly in its public diplomacy. King Abdallah follows a careful path towards Israel, balancing intensive quiet cooperation with occasional public displeasure and condemnation.

The peace treaty has never been popular among the Jordanian “street,” as well as among many intellectuals, professional associations, and parliamentarians. Calls for its abrogation have existed almost since it was signed. At different periods over the past 25 years, there have been (usually non-violent) demonstrations and calls for a more aggressive stand towards Israel. This has occurred when there is violence in the Territories and especially on the Temple Mount, which has an intrinsic religious resonance for Muslims, and an even greater one in Jordan, which sees itself as the guardian of Jerusalem’s Islamic holy places (and was recognized as such in the peace treaty). There were demonstrations in Jordan the week before the King’s announcement (and in the weeks before that), calling for the cancellation of the “lease.” Eighty-seven Jordanian MPs (out of 130) signed a petition urging an end to the “lease;” while the Parliament is irrelevant in Jordanian policymaking, it is an indicator of popular and even elite sentiment.

Since July 2017, it has become progressively harder (and perhaps less compelling) for the King to maintain balance. That month, there was a terrorist attack on the Temple Mount, followed by temporary closure of the site by Israel and the installation of metal detectors. This led to condemnation of Israel in the Jordanian Parliament as well as protests. The same month, there was a shooting involving an Israeli embassy security guard, in which two Jordanians were killed, one a bystander. The Jordanian government expressed indignation over how Israel depicted the incident and the warm reception that the guard received from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his return to Israel. The embassy was closed until January 2018, when it was reopened with a new ambassador and after Israeli paid compensation to the families of the two individuals who were killed, as well as to the family of a Jordanian judge killed at the Allenby Bridge in 2014.

In addition, it is reported that Jordan has been unhappy that the American peace process team has carried out negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians without bringing it into the loop. Reports that Saudi Arabia had requested special status on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during exchanges with the Trump administration came as a surprise and sparked concerns for the Jordanian leadership. It sought urgent clarification from Jerusalem and Washington as to whether there were plans to undermine the Hashemite Kingdom’s historical standing in Jerusalem. The Trump administration is also reported to have made a proposal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about establishing a confederation with Jordan—without having asked Abdallah’s opinion. The Jordanian government has also been extremely unhappy with the Trump administration’s decisions to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and to cancel funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which it sees as having “forced its hand” in taking a public countervailing position.One Jordanian source (quoted in MENA Financial Network, October 25) claims that the King made the decision regarding the two annexes in May and ordered a thorough legal study of the decision, long before the grassroots campaign picked up momentum and the motion in Parliament.

The Jerusalem Post reported that senior Jordanian officials in Amman said that the Kingdom could have shown greater flexibility in dealing with Israel, but “chose not to,” since it “encountered stubborn policies from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, including positions on Jerusalem and other holy places.” Some observers claim that Jordan is unhappy with the lack of progress of the “Red-Dead Canal” scheme, which would provide desalinated fresh water for Jordan, but which has been held up in Israel on economic and environmental grounds. They note that Jordanian Water Authority chief Saad Abu Hammour warned Israeli diplomats two years ago that his country would have no choice but to demand the two areas back, in light of Jordanian anger about Israel’s reticence about honoring the February 2015 agreement launching the project.

The Israeli Aspect

Reaction in Israel, after initial expressions of surprise and dismay, has been muted. This is probably partially due to a “gag order” imposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu on his ministers, alluded to by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzippy Hotovely, a stalwart of the Likud’s right wing.  Hotovely said on October 23, “At this moment, there is a total blackout on our ability to talk about it publicly. The issue is being discussed in the National Security Staff. . . . I cannot share with the public the direction where things will go, but we can say that we will not accept the Jordanian declaration as it stands.” Some politicians and commentators on the right see the recent step as a further stage in the gradual distancing of the Jordanian regime from peace with Israel, noting Jordan’s critical position on the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and support for anti-Israel positions in international fora. They also note the leverage Israel has over Jordan, especially the fact that Israel allows Jordan to receive more water from the Yarmuk and Jordan Rivers than the treaty requires.

Commentators and politicians on the left are criticizing Netanyahu for taking Jordan for granted and “allowing” bilateral relations to deteriorate to such a level. Some Israelis were offended that the announcement came on the official commemoration day of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, who signed the peace accord (since the day is celebrated according to the Hebrew calendar, and not its secular date of November 4, the Jordanians may well have been unaware of its significance). Israeli media have stressed the negative implications of the move for the farmers affected, especially in Tzofar, since Israeli agriculture is more generally facing extreme economic hardship, partially due to liberalization of import restrictions and partially due to what is termed “cartelization” by large wholesale buyers.

The greatest concerns voiced regard the implications of the move for the overall future of the entire peace treaty. Both Jordanian and Israeli officials have made calming statements in this direction, with Safadi noting, “We acted within the provisions of the peace treaty. This is an indication of our commitment to the peace treaty. There has never been a question of our solid commitment to the treaty.”

Israeli officials’ and leaders’ reactions seem to have been tempered by their understanding that the Jordanians were within their legal rights, their cognizance of the domestic pressures on King Abdallah, the limited actual impact of the step—only several dozen families’ livelihoods are threatened by the reversion of the territories to full Jordanian control—and the importance they afford to the continued political and strategic relationship with Jordan, as a key element of Israeli national security.

What Next?

While some Israelis believe that the Jordanian move is aimed at securing concessions from Israel, and may be reversible, it seems more likely that Jordan is intent on restoring its sovereignty in the two areas. The decision not to renew the annexes to the treaty was a step the King could take to signal to his people his awareness of their unhappiness with the peace treaty (and to Jerusalem and Washington not to take Jordan for granted) and to give Israel a “wake-up call” without taking the dangerous step of suspending or cancelling the peace treaty itself. It will be hard for him to walk it back.

It is worth remembering that unlike Egypt, Jordan achieved no territorial gains from its peace treaty since the territories taken from it in 1967 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are seen as belonging to the Palestinians and were not returned to Jordan (as the Sinai was for Egypt). It can even be argued—and is argued vehemently in Jordan—that the exceptional status of Naharayim and Tzofar means that Jordan actually gave up territory to make peace with Israel.

The process from here will probably not be quick. The peace treaty distinguishes between Naharayim and Tzofar. Regarding Naharayim, annex 1(b) speaks of “Israeli private land ownership rights and property interests;” on Tzofar, it mentions “Israeli private land use rights” [my emphasis]. As former Prime Minister Abdul Salam Majali has noted, Israeli citizens have “ownership rights” in Naharayim that date back to 1926 when Russian Jewish engineer Pinhas Rutenberg obtained a concession for production and distribution of electric power. In Tzofar, on the other hand, the local farmers were growing crops in the border areas before the peace treaty, utilizing local fossil water deposits, without owning the land. This issue, that there are Israeli property rights in the northern disputed area, is not widely known in Jordan.[1] So the discussion of this area is expected to require compensation and even legal processes and may well be protracted.

Both governments have an interest to isolate the issue, to prevent it from escalating and affecting the broader relationship, and to handle the next steps in discreet channels. Jordan’s recent announcement cannot help but highlight the extent to which the overt political, as opposed to the discreet security, relationship has already chilled. This in itself may be salutary if it encourages Israel not to forget Jordan’s internal politics and pressures and to treat Jordan’s public interests on controversial issues with even more care. At the same time, however, Jordan must be led to understand that further tinkering with the peace treaty is to be avoided, so as not to encourage those who see it as a relic of a bygone, naïve period of optimism, already irrelevant in the turbulence of the contemporary Middle East.

[1] This area is also more sensitive emotionally, since it includes the area known as the Island of Peace, where a Jordanian soldier in March 1997 opened fire and killed seven Israeli sixth- and seventh-graders; King Hussein visited the families of each of the victims in their homes in Israel, and garnered appreciation from the Israeli public. The killer, Ahmad Daqamseh, was released in March 2017; his release was widely celebrated in Jordan, and his unrepentant musings on his actions are widely quoted in Jordanian media.