Israel, Jordan discreetly foster ties amid regional chaos

Israel, Jordan discreetly foster ties amid regional chaos
Ties between Amman and Tel Aviv have grown stronger, with deals on natural gas and water desalination alongside close security cooperation.
4 min read
22 June, 2015
Jordan's King Abdullah and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert in Amman, 08 June 2006 (AFP)
A new Jordanian think tank that focuses on Israel is tucked away on the seventh floor of a glass-fronted Amman office building, without a sign announcing the presence of the Centre for Israel Studies.

It's the sort of discretion still customary in Jordan when it comes to anything concerning Israel. Broad segments of Jordanian society, where a majority have Palestinian roots, oppose "normalisation" with Israel even 21 years after the two countries signed a peace agreement.

But on a state level, mutual interests have brought the two countries closer than ever. Israel needs Jordan as security buffer on its eastern flank, and is putting a premium on helping to ensure the stability of the pro-Western kingdom, which faces potential threats from Islamic State (IS) militants who control large areas in neighbouring Syria and Iraq.

Jordan is chronically short of water and energy, and needs Israel as a supplier to diversify imports and prevent further shocks to its fragile economy. Israel, meanwhile, is considering hiring workers from Jordan's troubled tourism sector in its Red Sea port of Eilat.

"The relations have indeed become closer," said Emmanuel Nahshon, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We see Jordan as a strategic partner, and have every intention of assisting and cooperating."

But Jordanian officials are more guarded.

"Jordan's relations with Israel are subject to Jordan's national interests," government spokesman Mohammed Momani said. "The government does not force any Jordanian to engage in relations with Israel, but those who do are not breaking any laws."

Many Jordanians oppose ties with Israel, arguing there can be no normalisation as long as Israel occupies war-won lands the Palestinians want for a state. A coalition of Jordanian opposition groups has rallied against the gas deal, under the slogan, "Gas of the Enemy is Occupation."

In such a climate, the Centre for Israel Studies quietly began operations, setting up a website this year that publishes Arabic translations of Israeli articles about Israel and its views of the Arab world. The Amman centre also produces its own studies about Israel.

Director Abdullah Sawalha said he is trying to provide more accurate information about Israel, arguing that Jordanians know little or have been misinformed.

"Israel exists in this region," he said, adding that "many, many people (in Jordan) have an interest in this subject, but they don't talk about it."

Undisclosed sources of funding

Sawalha, a former employee in Jordan's government spokesman's office, said his centre is independent, but declined to reveal sources of funding.

Sawalha said he tries to show Israel "in a realistic light", but doesn't hide his politics: He supports the establishment of a Palestinian state in the lands Israel occupied in 1967 and opposes violence.
     "We see Jordan as a strategic partner, and have every intention of assisting and cooperating."
- Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman

For the time being, it's "not useful" to advertise the centre's location by putting a sign on the door, he said, referring to the prevailing mood in Jordan. The centre might adopt a higher profile in coming months, said Sawalha, who has been interviewed by the Jordanian media.

He asked not to disclose the location of 10 Hebrew translators who are based in another Arab country, suggesting they could otherwise face problems.

Another key figure at the study centre is Yehiyeh Matalka, who oversees translations from Amman. Matalka said he learned Hebrew by accident, starting in 1993, when Baghdad University mistakenly signed him up for the language instead of German and refused to change the registration.

Sawalha and Matalka, who have both visited Israel, displayed detailed knowledge of Israeli politics and the country's social problems, such as the recent anti-discrimination protests by Jews of Ethiopian origin and the deep divide between secular and religious Jewish Israelis.

Activists in Jordan's anti-normalisation movement view the study centre's claims of objectivity with suspicion.

Thoraya El-Rayyes, a researcher at the Jordanian National Campaign to Block the Gas Deal with Israel, said she believes the think tank is meant to promote a more positive view of Israel in Jordan. She also questioned the centre's unwillingness to disclose sources of funding.

El-Rayyes said the anti-gas group represents a broad range of Jordan's political opposition, from leftists to Islamists. Activists argue the gas deal could make Jordan even more dependent on Israel and that taxes flowing into Israeli's treasury could finance Jewish settlements and military action against Palestinians.

In a reflection of the public mood, the lower house of Jordan's parliament overwhelmingly rejected the gas deal in December in a non-binding vote. The agreement, which could secure a large chunk of Jordan's energy needs, is hung up over regulatory issues in Israel.

Israeli-Jordan relations also hit a rough spot late last year amid Jewish-Muslim tensions over prayer rights at a key contested shrine in Jerusalem, where Jordan serves as custodian.

In a sign of the importance Israel places on its ties with Jordan, the Israeli government moved quickly to restore calm after Jordan temporarily recalled its ambassador.