Is the Gaza war a turning point for Jordan-Israel relations?
Jordan does not need any new crises. The country’s economy faces extremely serious problems. The structural distortions of Jordan’s labour market have done much to drive up the country’s unemployment rate, which surpassed 23 percent earlier this year.
High fuel prices have added to the economic suffering while water scarcity is another crisis greatly constraining the country’s economy. In recent years, these issues have led to widespread discontent that has manifested in many Jordanians taking to the streets to protest.
The problems plaguing Jordan can’t be fully understood as entirely internal. Regional turmoil and spillover from conflicts in neighbouring countries have worsened Jordan’s domestic crises.
Within this context, the leadership in Amman has found the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government extremely dangerous, causing Jordan’s relationship with Israel to greatly deteriorate in recent years.
"Prime Minister Khasawneh and Foreign Minister Safadi both said that the peace treaty is a piece of paper collecting dust. This is the most extreme position that Jordan has taken about the peace treaty in decades"
Rising tensions in Jordanian-Israeli relations
From Jordan’s perspective, Israeli settlement expansion and intensified oppression in the West Bank pose grave dangers not only to the Palestinians but also to the Hashemite Kingdom.
For years, policymakers in Amman have feared what would be the destabilising effects of a new huge wave of Palestinian refugees entering Jordan at a time in which the country can’t take them in.
Such friction in Jordanian-Israeli relations has drastically heated up since 7 October. Arguably, of all Arab states, it is Jordan that has been harshest in its words for Israel amid this crisis.
Since the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza began roughly two months ago, there has been no publicly reported communication between Jordan and Israel’s governments.
King Abdullah II has issued warnings about Israel’s conduct risking further regionalisation and internationalisation of the conflict. The Jordanian monarch has also rejected plans for the Israelis to re-occupy Gaza.
Meanwhile, Queen Rania has spoken to the Western media, making many repeated calls for a ceasefire, and condemning Israeli war crimes.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has used strong language to call out Israel for its “barbaric aggression” and he has articulated Amman’s position that Arab states must not play any role in facilitating another Nakba.
Last month, Jordan’s chief diplomat did not hold back when addressing the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Manama Dialogue 2023 in Bahrain.
“All of us have to speak loud and clear about the catastrophe that the Israeli war is bringing, not just on Gaza, but on the region in general,” said Safadi. “This is not self-defence. This is a blatant aggression, the victims of which are innocent Palestinians.”
At the event in Bahrain, Safadi said that “there will be no Arab troops going to Gaza” and Arab governments “are not going to be seen as the enemy”. He stressed that Arab states were united in opposing any plans for an Arab troop deployment to Gaza, maintaining that such a move would lead to Netanyahu’s government concluding that Arab states are willing to “clean up [Israel’s] mess.”
Jordan’s reactions to the Israeli war on Gaza have gone beyond words. On 1 November, Amman announced its decision to withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv. Then, 15 days later, Jordan scrapped plans to sign a deal for an exchange of solar energy for desalinated water.
“Relations [between Jordan and Israel] have been at a historic low even before 7 October and since Netanyahu formed the far-right government a year ago. But the events following the 7 October attack and Israel’s disproportionate response, which Jordan construed as a scheme to displace Gazans and re-occupy the Strip, have sounded alarm bells in Amman,” Osama Al Sharif, a veteran Jordanian journalist based in Amman, told The New Arab.
“Jordan views the Israeli onslaught as a game changer in the Israel-Palestine conflict and fears that the end game could jeopardise its own national security. Under public pressure, Jordan recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv.”
"The events following the 7 October attack and Israel's disproportionate response, which Jordan construed as a scheme to displace Gazans and re-occupy the Strip, have sounded alarm bells in Amman"
Jordan’s leadership can’t ignore public opinion in the country. Across the country, citizens are livid while watching the news out of Palestine. Their emotions are powerful and heartfelt.
“I believe there is strong genuine opposition in Jordan and most of the world to what Israel has done to Palestinians,” said Dr Daoud Kuttab, a former professor at Princeton University and the founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at al-Quds University in Ramallah, in an interview with TNA.
In Jordan, like the other Arab countries, there is a widespread understanding that Israel couldn’t wage this war on Gaza without US support. Jordanians see an American hand in the carnage in Gaza, which has resulted in anti-American sentiments spiking in Jordan as well as across the wider region.
Jordan’s decision to cancel a summit scheduled to take place in Amman on 18 October, in which US President Joe Biden was set to meet with some regional leaders, was reflective of Jordanian public opinion.
Jordan’s authorities have realised the need for citizens to be able to express their rage toward Israel and the US. The government has permitted anti-Israeli protests to take place in Amman and elsewhere in the kingdom since 7 October.
To be sure, Jordan’s firm positions in opposition to Israeli policies have much to do with Jordanian authorities’ concerns about both spillover effects of the war as well as domestic politics.
When asked how much of a factor public anger toward Israel is in Amman’s strong rhetoric against Israel, Al Sharif told TNA, “It matters and it appears that Amman has allowed its citizens to express their anger with little intervention in order to back up its official position”.
Yet Jordan’s leadership has acted strategically as an Arab state that normalised with Israel almost three decades ago. Seeking to leverage its relationship with Tel Aviv, Jordanian officials coordinated with their Israeli counterparts to send vital medical aid to a Jordanian field hospital in besieged Gaza via air drops last month.
At a time when there is growing anger among Jordanians over their country’s peace treaty with Israel, this move perhaps reflected Amman’s aims to demonstrate how Jordan was doing something meaningful to help wounded Palestinians in Gaza in ways that its formalised relationship with Tel Aviv makes possible. Jordan made these airdrops with cooperation from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
The future of Jordanian-Israeli relations
Jordan’s relationship with Israel is in unchartered territory. Much uncertainty clouds questions about where it is headed. While many experts doubt that Jordan would abrogate the Wadi Araba Treaty any time soon, one should not completely rule out the possibility.
When Jordan signed the treaty in 1994, the logic was that it would end the idea of Jordan being the Palestinian homeland. Officials in Amman have been crystal clear that a redline of theirs would be Israel engaging in mass expulsions of Palestinians that send them into Jordan.
Since 7 October, the language used by authorities in Amman suggests that the Wadi Araba Treaty might be more fragile than many observers would have assumed otherwise.
“Prime Minister Khasawneh and Foreign Minister Safadi both said that the peace treaty is a piece of paper collecting dust. This is the most extreme position that Jordan has taken about the peace treaty in decades,” Al Sharif told TNA.
"Navigating the fallout of the Israeli war on Gaza and Israel's intensified ethnic cleansing in the West Bank will be no easy task for Amman"
That said, Jordanian policymakers have no choice but to act pragmatically. If Jordan pulls out of the peace treaty with Israel, there could be huge costs imposed on the country. At the end of the day, Jordan is in no position to go to war with Israel. There is no denying that Israel could take action toward Jordan which would drastically exacerbate its existing crises.
Given that the only parts of Jordan where the land is suitable for farming exist along the country’s border with Israel-Palestine, the Israelis could make Jordan unliveable if they decide to do so.
Jordan’s relationship with Washington is an important variable in the equation. Since the Wadi Araba Treaty in 1994, the Hashemite Kingdom has been highly dependent on aid from the US. Jordanian officials can’t ignore this factor.
“If relations reach a point of no return and Israel does go ahead with the transfer of Palestinians then there would be nothing to gain from holding to the peace agreement. But of course, Jordan is a close US ally and is heavily dependent on US economic and military support,” Al Sharif told TNA.
“So, leaving the treaty would harm ties with the US and expose Jordan’s national security. I don’t believe Jordan would go as far as abandoning the treaty at this stage.”
Jordan has some options that might constitute a middle ground between abrogating the Wadi Araba Treaty and taking no further diplomatic action. Amman can downgrade relations with Tel Aviv and make other moves short of a complete withdrawal from the 1994 treaty.
Given the costs of reversing Jordan’s 1994 treaty with Israel, Amman will likely pursue options that don’t go so far. Yet, there will be lots of pressure on Jordanian policymakers from their citizens to take a harder line against Israel as this war in Gaza rages on and oppression intensifies in the West Bank.
This is a challenging period for Jordan’s leadership. The consequences of Israel continuing down its path of war will leave Jordan vulnerable. Navigating the fallout of the Israeli war on Gaza and Israel’s intensified ethnic cleansing in the West Bank will be no easy task for Amman.
There is a view among Jordanians that the only country capable of pressuring Israel into changing its behaviour is the US, but the Biden administration is too spineless to do that, especially during an election year.
A cost that Washington could pay for its iron-clad support for Israel’s destructive behaviour is the destabilisation of an important Arab ally that the US has long counted on.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero