Hamas's landslide victory in the recent Palestinian parliamentary elections is the latest sign of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) failure. The collapse of the West Bank into civil chaos and jihadist control would pose a security dilemma not only for Israel but also for Jordan. It is a scenario that increasingly occupies the Jordanian government's strategic thinking.
Jordan's interest in the West Bank is long-standing. The Jordanian army occupied the West Bank and Jerusalem in 1948 but was ousted by the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1967 Six-Day war. King Hussein continued to claim sovereignty until July 31, 1988, when, in the midst of the first Palestinian intifada, he renounced Jordan's official administrative and legal roles in the territory. His motives were not entirely altruistic or sparked by commitment to Palestinian nationalism; rather, he feared the spread of Palestinian unrest to the East Bank.
The king could not, however, renounce all Jordanian interests in the territory because the economic, social, and familial links were too strong. Hussein also remained committed to Jordan's traditional custodial role for the Haram al-Sharif mosque in Jerusalem even as Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) worked to undermine Jordanian control there. Despite Jordan's unilateral disengagement from the West Bank, the kingdom continued to issue two-year Jordanian passports to West Bankers, down from the standard five-year passports they had previously received.
While the Palestinian Authority became the Palestinians' sole international representative during the Oslo years, its failure to assert control and become a politically viable entity has caused Amman to reconsider whether a hands-off strategy toward the West Bank is in its best interests. Simultaneously, many Israeli and West Bank Palestinian officials are also reconsidering whether a preeminent Jordanian role in the Palestinian future will better advance their peace and security.
On November 9, 2005, Iraqi suicide bombers operating under the command of Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, himself a Jordanian, struck three hotels in the Jordanian capital Amman, killing sixty people and wounding more than 100. The attack shook Jordanian confidence. King Hussein and his son and successor, King Abdullah, long prided themselves on establishing security via relations with all neighbors. While Egypt was the first Arab country to establish relations with Israel, Jordan had a better working relationship. Simultaneously, the Jordanian government developed close relations with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. In 1991, for example, King Hussein declined to join the international coalition against Iraq. After King Hussein renounced Jordanian claims to the West Bank in 1988, the Jordanian government worked to balance its interests with the PLO, a group that had once tried to overthrow the Hashemite kingdom, and later with the Palestinian Authority.
While both the Iraqi and Palestinian governments have sponsored terrorism in Iraq and the West Bank, neither Baghdad nor Ramallah would tolerate the targeting of Jordanians. With its neighbors' interests balanced, Jordanian intelligence sought to guarantee domestic security through penetration of local Islamist cells. Its record of thwarting attacks, even by Zarqawi's group, had been excellent. But with an Iraqi insurgency thriving in the vacuum left behind by Saddam's fall, and anarchy threatening the West Bank, traditional Jordanian strategic doctrine is no longer relevant. Jordanian outreach to Iraqi insurgents has failed to contain the threat. The hotel bombings, moreover, demonstrated Jordan's vulnerability to terrorism perpetrated by non-Jordanians.
How can the Jordanian kingdom respond? Shutting its borders to Iraq and the West Bank is not an option. As a landlocked, desert nation, the Jordanian economy is dependent upon trade. More than half of its population is Palestinian. Many maintain business and financial links with the West Bank. Likewise, the Jordanian economy also continues to be dependent on trade links with its Iraqi neighbor—now in the midst of a US$30 billion United States-led economic redevelopment—and some 200,000 Iraqis legally reside in Jordan, and several hundred thousand more Iraqis have established residence in Jordan.
As a result, the Jordanian government has reconsidered its traditional neutrality and considered a move closer to the U.S. government's confrontation against jihadism. King Abdullah did not hesitate to stake a firm position following the hotel bombings. The following day, he declared, "Jordan is not afraid and will not accept to be blackmailed, and these acts will not make us change our positions and convictions and to retreat from our role in fighting terror in all its forms."
The king has been equally vocal about the growing threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran. The king explained in a January 2005 interview: "My concern is political, not religious … You have these four [Iran, Iran-influenced Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah] who have a strategic objective that could create a major conflict … I have a real problem with certain Iranian factions' political influence inside Iraq."
Converging Israeli-Jordanian Interests
Israel's August-September 2005 unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip brought neither peace nor security. Militias in Gaza terrorize the local population and kidnap foreigners. Terrorists launch rockets into Israel. Palestinian internecine fighting has accelerated. Islamist groups such as Hamas that openly support terrorism may soon overshadow the Palestinian Authority.
The Israeli government shares Jordanian concern over both Sunni and Shi'ite terrorist networks. Both countries see Iran as a long-term strategic threat. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction. Iranian pursuit of nuclear capability does not allow Israel's security apparatus to dismiss such statements. Nor can Israel ignore Iranian support for Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza. The Islamic Republic has long reached out to Palestinian terrorists. PLO chairman Yasir Arafat was the first "head-of-state" to visit Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad was formed at the height of Iran's relationship with the PLO following its 1979 Islamic revolution. The 9-11 Commission identified multiple links and incidents of cooperation between the Iranian regime and Al-Qaeda.
The concern is not just theoretical. Israeli intelligence assessments of the Amman suicide attacks suggest jihadist groups are working to acquire operational footholds close to Israel's borders. Israeli intelligence believes that, since 2001, Al-Qaeda and Hamas have established close cooperation in the West Bank and Gaza. Al-Qaeda is recruiting members and establishing cells in the West Bank to carry out terror attacks in Israel. According to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Israeli authorities have received specific intelligence about the existence of Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist cells in the West Bank that are preparing terrorist and missile attacks against Israel. On January 10, 2006, a website used by Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq commander Zarqawi stated that Osama bin Laden ordered the late December 2005 rocket barrage from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. While there has not yet been a similar attack from the West Bank, the nature of its border with Israel would bring within range far greater population and more important infrastructure. Jerusalem and Amman both fear that these Islamist terrorist groups may try to destabilize Jordan's border with Israel. The August 19, 2005 Al-Qaeda rocket attack from the Jordanian port of Aqaba into the southern Israeli town of Eilat highlighted the threat. Jerusalem and Amman's bilateral interest in preventing an Al-Qaeda toehold in the Jordan Valley has never been stronger.
The breakdown of law-and-order in Gaza and Palestinian areas of the West Bank compounds the problem. While Gaza cannot pose an immediate security threat to Jordan, the West Bank can. Jordanian assessments oppose any Gaza-style Israeli unilateral disengagement from the West Bank for fear that warlords, jihadists, and armed militias would fill the resulting security vacuum. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups could find fertile ground in the West Bank to strike at both the Hashemite kingdom and the Jewish state.
King Abdullah has signaled a willingness to reengage in West Bank affairs. In the most significant Jordanian intervention in the West Bank since July 1988, Abdullah began in March 2005 to enlist new recruits for the Jordan-based and influenced Badr security forces (also known as the Palestinian Liberation Army) for possible deployment to parts of the West Bank, with PA leader Mahmoud Abbas's approval.
Marouf al-Bakhit, at the time Jordan's ambassador to Israel and, subsequently, the kingdom's prime minister, elaborated that the Jordanian government hoped to play a more active role in the West Bank. On the eve of Zarqawi's attack, former prime minister Adnan Badran told the Palestinian daily Al-Quds that Jordan could no longer sit idle "with its arms crossed and watch what transpires in Palestine because it influences what happens in Jordan for better or worse"
In March 2005, the Jordanian government made clear its willingness to alter the traditional peace process paradigm. On the eve of the March 2005 Arab League summit in Algiers, Jordanian foreign minister Hani al-Mulki called for a "regional approach" to Middle East peacemaking along the lines of the 1991 Madrid peace conference. This set the stage for King Abdullah's proposal at the summit, in which he called for a broader and more creative approach.
The Jordanian leadership appears increasingly willing to play a direct role. King Abdullah's March 2005 Arab League proposal to normalize relations with Israel prior to a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict represents a Jordanian about-face from its acquiescent posture post-Oslo. In addition, for the first time in Arab diplomatic history, it signifies an Arab state's peace proposal that omits preconditions such as references to U.N. Security Council resolutions which Arab states have claimed require Israel to return to the 1949 armistice lines and repatriate Palestinian refugees. Abdullah's proposal called for a settlement with Israel to be based on "the principle of land for peace and the 1991 Madrid peace conference." The Madrid conference, in contrast to the subsequent Oslo process with the PLO, featured a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and did not call for Israel to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians as a precondition to initiating reconciliation with the Arab world. Jordan's ambassador to Israel, Marouf al-Bakhit, reinforced Abdullah's peace strategy in a 2005 interview. While the Arab League rejected the Jordanian proposal, Amman shattered a taboo.
A Jordanian-Palestinian Federation?
The Jordanian government has not indicated interest in re-annexing the West Bank, a plan under consideration until 1987. However, both Jordanian and senior Palestinian leaders say that possibilities exist for security, economic, and, possibly, political arrangements between Jordan and a future independent Palestinian entity. A senior Palestinian government official confided that a federation-confederation between a Palestinian entity and Jordan would be the only reasonable, stable, long-term solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He suggested that both the Jordanian and Palestinian Authority leaderships should lead joint negotiations with Israel to solve the refugee issue and that of Jerusalem, and determine the final borders of the West Bank.
Abdullah's Al-Urdunn Awwalan (Jordan First) political and economic reform program includes a proposal to decentralize Amman's political control and rezone the kingdom into northern, central, and southern governorates. Jordan's new federal approach to the East Bank may have implications for the West Bank's political future.
In a January 19, 2005 speech on Jordanian television, Abdullah said the kingdom would have a "number of development areas or regions each of which would consist of respective governorates and local councils elected by the people who would set the priorities of their respective areas." Three months later, he established a new governmental body with eight subcommittees with mandates to draft legislation devolving legislative authority to a number of regional parliaments covering the northern, southern, and central districts. A federal Jordanian political system presents a logical foundation for parallel districting on the West Bank.
Marriage and succession diplomacy may also facilitate co-federation. King Abdullah derives popularity among Palestinians in Jordan because his wife Rania is from the West Bank city of Tulkharm. Abdullah's February 2005 decision to replace younger half-brother Prince Hamza with his own ten-year-old son Hussein would also enhance popularity. While Hamza's mother is American-born, Hussein's mother is Rania.
Not everything will be smooth sailing. Palestinian elites—many of whom have significant financial holdings in the West Bank—chafe at Abdullah's efforts to construct a new Jordanian national identity. The historical narratives of the East and West Bank Palestinians have also diverged. Jordan is in the throes of a post-ideological revolution defined by high technology, the Internet, and Westernization. They focus more on the present and less on the unresolved Palestinian refugee issue. Jordan's ambassador to Israel, Marouf al-Bakhit, though, has argued that co-federation could break the refugee impasse. "We shall give them the right to choose," he said. "You came here when there was a unity between Jordan and Palestine. Now there is a Palestinian state ... This is the right time to make the choice if you want to go back [to Palestine]."
The Palestinian Debate
Since Israel's unilateral withdrawal, Gaza has degenerated into chaos, and unemployment rates have exceeded 50 percent. Many West Bank Palestinians worry that if the current chaos and lawlessness continue there, and if the Israelis withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza may be their future. Nigel Roberts, World Bank director for the West Bank and Gaza, warned on January 10, 2006, that the Palestinian Authority is on the verge of bankruptcy. Across the Jordan River, though, West Bankers see prosperous East Bank Palestinian families well-integrated into the Jordanian system, owning majority stakes in Jordan's banking, industrial, commerce, and agricultural sectors. Such comparisons have sparked debate among Palestinian Authority leaders about how to achieve a more promising Palestinian future.
Since Israel's disengagement, Palestinian priorities have shifted toward improving standards of living and fighting corruption. They are tired of institutional corruption and the PLO and Hamas's collision course. World Bank director Roberts warned recently that security chaos in Gaza and large parts of the West Bank and violence is driving away foreign investors. Many Palestinians even fear civil war.
The current situation creates a stark choice for moderate West Bank Palestinians: either link up with Islamist and anarchic Gaza, or tie the West Bank's future to a relatively affluent and stable Jordan that has a good working relationship with neighboring Israel. Leading Palestinian intellectuals Riad Malki and Rami Nasrallah, both of whom run respected Palestinian policy institutes, have also raised doubts as to whether bilateral negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel could ever result in a viable Palestinian state. During a June 2005 trip to Washington, Palestinian publisher Hanna Seniora said, "The current weakened prospects for a two-state solution forces us to revisit the possibility of a confederation with Jordan."
The efforts of PA interior minister and national security forces commander Nasser Youssef to maintain control have not only failed but also contributed to a general deterioration of security. Upon the assumption of his duties following the election of Mahmoud Abbas in January 2005, Youssef inherited approximately 40,000 security forces which Arafat had divided into no fewer than nine competing security services before international pressure to enact reform forced the late PA chairman to combine them. But the divisions were too great to overcome. To start from scratch would mean purging tens of thousands of enlistees, a move which would spark rebellion.
A second obstacle to the Palestinian Authority's ability to establish law and order has been the emergence of local warlords such as West Bank strongman Jibril Rajoub and Gaza strongman Muhammed Dahlan, currently in charge of civil affairs. Rajoub, Dahlan, and organized crime families such as the Dagmush and Abu Samhadanna clans have established private militias that render unchallenged PA control impossible without the cooperation and participation of Jordan. Moreover, the ruling Fatah party is fragmented and on the verge of implosion.
Because of the growing chaos, prominent Palestinian families in Nablus traveled repeatedly to Amman to request that Jordan dispatch Jordanian security forces to several West Bank cities to help establish law and order. Back channel negotiations between Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah in 2003 and 2004 resulted in an agreement in principle to send 30,000 Badr Force members, former Palestinian refugees from the 1967 war, trained under Jordanian army supervision. Youssef supported the proposal. He recognizes that he neither has enough professional nor loyal forces at his disposal to compete with well-paid private militias or highly motivated and disciplined Islamist terror groups such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon informed his cabinet of the Jordanian security cooperation on June 1, 2005, but he later nixed the plan, fearing that it might contribute to the chaos in the Palestinian Authority. Some PA officials also complained although their motivation appeared to be fear that the Badr presence could undermine personal economic interests. Many senior Palestinian officials, though, privately say they favor the plan. For Abbas and his aides, rolling back Hamas weaponry and well-armed and financed Tanzim rivals represent a more pressing issue than the personal financial dealings of some local apparatchiks. Senior Palestinian officials recently suggested that the Palestinian Authority could better implement reform and overcome rival Islamist groups' warlords if Jordanian authorities managed security, economic support, and financial investment in the West Bank. King Abdullah, likewise, appears to want to weed out any nascent attempts for Al-Qaeda or other groups to establish a foothold from which they could not only strike west toward Israel but also east toward Jordan.
While international events have had a negative impact on Jordanian security, they have also increased the political importance of the kingdom. Saddam Hussein is gone, and Iraqi influence hobbled by its own troubles. International criticism of the Syrian regime in the wake of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri's assassination has undercut Syrian influence. Saudi preoccupation with Al-Qaeda and post-succession internecine struggles within the royal family have also reduced Riyadh's willingness to take a political lead. The Palestinian Authority, too, may be accepting of a Jordanian role. Abbas keeps close ties to King Abdullah and maintains a residence in Amman. Jordan has much more opportunity to play the leading Arab role in the West Bank than at any point since its disengagement in 1988 and, perhaps, even since Abdullah I was in his prime in the 1930s.
Reconsideration of some form of a federal relationship between Jordan and the West Bank may appear to go back to the future. The motivations for such a move, though, are far different than before the Oslo process. Now, the Jordanian-West Bank federation may be the Palestinians' only hope to defeat radical Islamism and build both a viable and democratic state.
U.S. policymakers should not be bound by a roadmap that may exist in diplomatic parlors but has no basis in the Israeli, Jordanian, or Palestinian reality. The Oslo process failed to create a viable and democratic Palestinian state. The end of the Arafat and Sharon era as well as the degeneration of Gaza into anarchy has made the roadmap moot. While the push for reconsideration of a Jordan-West Bank federation has come from Jordanians and Palestinians, Washington could play a valuable role in supporting and directing the process. Such a federation may not only be key to the security of both Jordan and Israel in the face of well-organized and well-financed jihadism, but it may also be the Palestinians' last best chance to have a viable state.
Dan Diker is a journalist and a senior policy analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs where he heads its Defensible Borders Initiative. Pinchas Inbari is a journalist and an Arab and Palestinian affairs analyst and has authored four books on the Palestinians, The Palestinians: Between Terror and Statehood.
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