There are no commemorative coins marking the twentieth anniversary of Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel. On the contrary, there is no single issue in Jordanian political life that can bring more people into the streets than an opportunity to vent their anger at Israel, demand their government toss out the Israeli ambassador, and heed their demands to abrogate the treaty. In fact, protesting the treaty is such a routine affair that Jordanian riot police leave the metal barricades used for crowd control lined up in a vacant lot close to where the Israeli mission is housed. Why bother take them back to the warehouse they say; the protestors will be back next week and most likely the week after.
When I discussed the treaty with Jordanian officials and intellectuals last year, I got an earful about “Israel’s bad behavior,” its “intransigence,” its refusal to compromise and general arrogance in their dealings with the Kingdom. They had a litany of complaints about their putative peace partner: from stepping on Jordan’s role as guardian of the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem, to the way Israel was seen as using security as a “black box to keep the Palestinian market captive and deny Jordan access.” And these complaints came from Jordanians who took part in its negotiation or implementation!
Even among the staunchest supporters of the treaty, there was little hope in continued negotiations for fulfilling the promise of a “new middle east” they believed was possible two decades hence. As one put it, “in the [current] Israeli political scene the Israelis are racing and competing with each other to say we are not going to have a Palestinian state!” The only hope, he said, was for the United Nations to impose a solution. Yet should Jordan back off the treaty or downgrade diplomatic relations? No, that would be “too risky.”
Surprisingly, the reason the treaty is seen as worth the domestic cost is not Jordan’s dependency on financial support from the United States. While they appreciate US aid and do draw a connection between the treaty and its ready availability, the rationale for the remarkable constancy in Jordanian-Israeli relations is Jordan’s need for protection. As they see it, Jordan is not only the weakest player in a rough neighborhood but wedged uncomfortably between rival gangs and habitually at risk for being caught in the cross fire. “The United States may be the global big brother,” they say, “But Israeli is the regional policeman.”
In the chaotic regional environment, the public nature of Jordan’s relations with Israel and the United States are seen as both a deterrent and a hedge against abandonment should the civil strife in neighboring states spill over the Kingdom’s borders. However, while the unrest in Syria and Iraq and the growing influence and power of “nihilistic groups with no ideology other than hatred and destruction,” are the most immediate dangers, it is the latent threats they see as emanating from Israel itself that is the number one reason they argue Jordan has no choice other than upholding the treaty.
For most of the world, the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has brought renewed fears of violent uprisings, terrorism and intense questioning over the future of Israeli democracy or the fading prospects for Palestinian self-determination. However in Jordan, the failure of the Oslo Accords has revived fears of the “watan badil;” the alternative homeland, or the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by making Jordan the de-facto or de-jure Palestinian state. As many policy makers and intellectuals see it, without the treaty, “we would become the bad guys; Israel would no longer protect us; the Palestinians would be pushed out and Jordan would disappear.”
While such fears are generally written off as “Arab conspiracy theories” or evidence of latent anti-Semitism on the part of Jordanian officials, there is a widely held belief in Jordan that Israel would not hesitate to settle their conflict with the Palestinians at their expense. There are few among Jordan’s elite who believe Israel is harboring a secret plot to empty the West Bank of its population or to topple the Hashemite regime. Rather, they are leery of the possibility that increasing violence in the territories could drag Jordan into an unwanted confrontation or simply leave it to cope with the consequences of Israeli unilateral actions in annexing territories or encouraging Palestinians to make use of Dayan’s “open bridges” policy.
From their perspective, keeping the treaty makes it difficult for Israel to argue they have no partners for peace, there are hostile states on their borders or, as the late Yitzhak Shamir was want to say -there is a Palestinian state across the river in all but name only. In other words, Jordanians describe the peace treaty as something akin to a protection racket – we keep your border safe, you respect our sovereignty. Or, an exercise in bandwagoning: an alliance with a powerful, proximate state who is both a valuable source of protection and potentially dangerous adversary. Thus, although many US think tanks fret about the fragility of the treaty and the likelihood it will be jettisoned without regular injections of cash, it is unlikely that the status quo in Jordanian-Israeli relations will change. The irony is that it is the absence of peace that makes keeping the peace an essential pillar of Jordan’s foreign policy.