Jordan's cool criticism of the 'Deal of the Century' could be King Abdullah's biggest win

Jordan's cool criticism of the 'Deal of the Century' could be King Abdullah's biggest win
Jordan's Wadi Araba peace treaty with Israel is on ice, but rumours it could end are premature.
9 min read
05 February, 2020
King Abdullah has taken a stronger stance against Israel [Getty]
In late October, Jordan's King Abdullah surveyed a plot of territory along its border, formally ending Israeli farmers' 25 year lease of the Baqura annex and bringing the land back under direct Jordanian control.

Accompanied by his son Crown Prince Hussein and a military entourage, the tour appeared more akin to an inspection of newly reconquered territory by a victorious commander, rather than the result of a minor adjustment of a 25-year peace treaty with Israel.

Yet the decision not to renew the Israeli farmers lease of the Baqura and Al-Ghamr annexes was no small act of diplomatic displeasure by the king and spoke strongly of the deteriorating relations between the two countries.

King Abdullah confessed at the time that "the Jordanian-Israeli relationship is at an all-time low" and that communication on key issues of the 1994 Wadi Araba peace treaty were no longer ongoing.

Last year, proposed celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the deal were turned down by Amman, highlighting that the landmark peace agreement is no longer considered the bedrock of Jordan's relationship with Israel.

Frosty peace

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Although Jordan remains one of only two Arab countries with official diplomatic ties with Israel, relations between the two parties have suffered since right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected to office for a second spell over a decade ago.

Things worsened further when Donald Trump was elected as US president and gave the right-wing Likud government his unequivocal support and the green light for Israel to continue its disavowal of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Authority [PA].

This culminated on Tuesday with the unveiling of Trump's long awaited  "Deal of the Century", which was heralded by Netanyahu as a "historic opportunity".

This glowing response by the premier was hardly surprising given that the deal would allow Israel to run roughshod over international law and the West Bank.

It also reduced the proposed Palestinian state to a confused archipelago of territories surrounding by Israeli land and settlements.

The Deal of the Century was unsurprisingly rejected by the Palestinian leadership which was not even consulted during its manufacture.

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Most Arab countries agree that only a deal committed to establishing a Palestinian state along the internationally-recognised 1967 boundaries – with East Jerusalem as its capital – would be acceptable.

Jordan – which served as a conduit between Israel and Arab states – joined the chorus of sceptics, putting it at odds with its traditional regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, who all welcomed the deal.

Without any hope of a viable Palestinian state emerging or the right of return for Palestinian refugees, then Jordan's leadership is faced with an existential moment.

Israel's annexation of large chunks of the West Bank – including the Jordan Valley – are also viewed as red lines for Amman and no amount of coercing or enticing can make the current "Deal of the Century" unacceptable to Jordan's leadership.

Even Israel's security services are concerned that the pursuit for the "Deal of the Century" could force Jordan to pull out of the Wadi Araba peace treaty altogether.


King Abdullah's decision to reclaim the two annexes was a symbolic one, but spoke of Jordan's growing frustrations with Israel's disregard of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the spirit of the Wadi Araba treaty.

Under successive Likud governments, Israel has continued its expansion of settlements in the West Bank and looked to stifle Palestinian hopes for self-determination.
The Israeli political establishment under Netanyahu have been very disrespectful to Jordan, especially when Trump came to office
- Osama Sharif, journalist
The day Jordan regained full sovereignty over Baqura and Al-Ghamr, celebrations were held across the kingdom. Crowds also gathered in Amman in November to welcome home two Jordanians – Hiba Al-Labadi and Adul Rahman Miri – after their detention in Israel for two months.

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"Jordan had to escalate the situation diplomatically and even threatened to expel the Israeli ambassador unless Israel either charged them or released them," Jordanian journalist Osama Sharif told The New Arab. "Israel chose to release them."

Other signs of public backing for a harder line against Israel are the large demonstrations in the capital against a proposed gas deal with Israel, which the Jordanian parliament has already rejected.

Although the parliament's veto will not halt the deal, as it involves private companies and not the state, Jordanians have threatened to boycott the gas suppliers and this will likely become a focal point for popular anger against Israel in the kingdom for the coming year.

It will also put pressure on the king to reassess the Wadi Araba agreement and continue to take a strong stance against Israel, as he did following the killing of two Jordanians in 2017 by an Israeli security officer in Amman.

Wadi Araba

Ending the Wadi Araba peace treaty with Israel could have seismic consequences for Jordan's relations with the US, but it would undoubtedly be a popular move at home.

The king has been faced with growing anger at the kingdom's extended period of economic doldrums and rising living costs.

Amman regularly tops lists for being the most expensive cities in the region, despite Jordan being classed by the World Bank as a lower middle income country.

Jordan has also been politically marginalised under the Trump administration, with the US and Israel dealing directly with Gulf states and undoing the kingdom's reputation as an important diplomatic intermediary.

"The Israeli political establishment under Netanyahu have been very disrespectful to Jordan, especially when Trump came to office and with the Deal of the Century, which it sees as [being detrimental] to the Palestinians and not benefiting Jordan on a strategic level," Sharif told The New Arab.

"I think the decision to reclaim the lands is a diplomatic triumph for Jordan and on a personal level it is good for King Abdullah who has been under pressure due to the economic situation in the country."

Changing moods

The sunny optimism of the post-Cold War era, when the Wadi Araba treaty was signed, has iced over after successive hostile Likud governments and an Israeli electorate that has shifted sharply to the right.

Netanyahu's contender in next April's general elections is not a left-leaning Labour candidate but Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White coalition, who has vowed to annex the Jordan Valley, the long strip of West Bank territory running along the kingdom's border.

Last week, Israel sent reinforcements to the Jordan Valley fearing unrest in the Palestinian territories following the unveiling of the Deal of the Century.

Tensions are running high on the other side of the border with Jordan's military simulating potential hostilities with its neighbour in December. The exercise was named "Swords of Karama", after Jordan's famous 1968 battle victory against Israel.
Jordan will not worsen any situation for Palestinians and use every diplomatic tool to build, not destroy
- Katrina Sammour, analyst
Although Jordan is clearly more assertive in expressing its frustrations at Israel, security ties between the two countries still remain strong and divorced from political factors, due to the mutual benefits this relationship brings.

"Jordan's intelligence is primarily defensive and would still seek cooperation from Israel on matters such as counter-terrorism. It would take a major move on the Israeli side that Jordan perceives as a real threat to territorial integrity for those relations to be downgraded," one security source told The New Arab.

"Jordanian politics is about realities not ideology, so there's always room for cooperation. Any rhetoric to the contrary is usually for domestic consumption."

Yet a fundamental impulse behind Jordan's commitment to the Wadi Araba agreement has been the hope it would one day lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, with borders along the lines of the internationally-accepted 1967 boundaries.

Jordan's future

The insulting map for a proposed Palestinian state drawn out by Jared Kushner in the Deal of the Century has been described as a "Swiss cheese" state and completely unworkable.

For Jordan and the PA leadership this is not even a starting point for long-term peace with Israel and hugely insulting.

Other red lines for Jordan are the deal's rejection of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The third holiest site in Islam – along with other holy sites in Jerusalem – is under Jordanian custodianship and another source of legitimacy for the monarchy.

Despite the quandary, King Abdullah is likely to continue to use the diplomatic tools at his disposable in a bid to resolve the crisis, say analysts and will avoid a hot-heated response.

"The kingdom's response to the deal has not changed... [which is] justice for refugees, the 1967 borders, and a peaceful path to a two-state solution. The kingdom is renowned for being the voice for peace," Jordanian analyst Katrina Sammour told The New Arab.

"Jordan's position is for a peaceful resolution, not this deal. The [Deal of the Century] has not changed Jordan's position on any of the points it has stood by, so why would it change its position on Wadi Araba? Jordan will not worsen any situation for Palestinians and use every diplomatic tool to build, not destroy."

While Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt reflected their warm ties with the Trump administration by welcoming the deal, Jordan is part of a global consensus that rejects the agreement as a viable road map for peace.

Sammour said that despite the different route taken by Jordan's traditional neighbours, the kingdom will not engage in "diplomatic trolling" and will stay focused on justice and peace for Palestinians.

"We can't act as if these issues or problems [with our] neighbours are new, Jordan has been diplomatically navigating numerous regional challenges. The deal has made a lot of headlines but it has not changed Jordan's position," Sammour added.

"Jordan's diplomacy has been done through actions, not statements. Its hospitality to thousands of Syrian refugees is a good example of this. It's role in religious dialogue and as custodian [of Jerusalem's holy sites] are other examples. Jordanian issues are international issues and vice versa."

As news of the failed Deal of the Century dies down in the coming months, Jordan's decision to make a robust but cool statement of opposition to it will highlight the kingdom's vital role as a consistent and thoughtful ally of the US.

If the US sees a new government elected in November, then Washington could rebuild its relationships with more experienced and cool-headed Arab allies who have been ignored under the Trump administration.

Yet the search for peace and stability in the region will remain elusive so long as Palestinian hopes for justice and dignity are ignored by the US.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin