OPN 191114 Israel-Jordan-1573728053220
A Jordanian national flag is lifted near a tent at the "Island of Peace" in an area known as Naharayim in Hebrew and Baquora in Arabic, on the Jordanian side of the border with Israel, as seen from the Israeli side November 10, 2019 Image Credit: REUTERS

November 10 was a historic day for Jordan as King Abdullah declared that the kingdom had reclaimed two plots of border lands that Israel was allowed to use under the 1994 peace treaty. The handover of Baqura and Ghamr was unceremonious as Israeli military closed the gates to the two enclaves a day before for the last time. As the king announced the restoration of sovereignty before parliament, the Jordanian flag flew over the liberated lands for the first time in decades. It was a day of celebration and pride for Jordanians and one of frustration and disappointment for Israel.

Few days ago, Jordanian diplomacy scored a major victory by forcing Israel to release, unconditionally, two Jordanian nationals that it had held under administrative detention since August. Jordan had recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv last month in protest and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi described the move as a “first step”. Behind-the-scenes negotiations underlined Jordan’s readiness to escalate unless Israel released the two Jordanians. There were reports that Israel had tried to tie the fate of the captives to an extension of the lease of the two lands. Jordan held its position and by the end of the day it succeeded on two fronts.

The two events underlined the state of frigid relations between the two neighbouring countries 25 years after they signed a historic peace treaty. Despite mounting tensions between the two, Safadi reiterated Amman’s commitment to the peace treaty and to the two-state solution; the latter proving to be a contentious issue for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government.

Jordan has used its legal rights under the treaty to terminate the lease despite repeated Israeli attempts to extend the agreement. It is a rare occasion where Israel is forced to honour its commitments in contrast to its violations of its accords with the Palestinians.

Lack of trust

Jordan has refused an Israeli offer to mark 25 years of peace between the two countries. At the political level ties remain tense and lack of trust from the Jordanian side is building up. Jordan has resisted Netanyahu’s attempts to normalise ties with other Arab countries without offering anything in return.

Over the past few years, Jordan had expressed indignation and frustration over continued Israeli provocations. Almost daily incursions by Jewish zealots of Al Aqsa compound continue despite Jordanian protestations. The incursions, encouraged by an arrogant Netanyahu, are seen as a personal affront to King Abdullah, who under the peace treaty has a special role as a caretaker of Muslim holy places in East Jerusalem.

Striking peace with Israel was a strategic decision taken by the King Hussain following the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1993. The decision was taken in order to delineate international borders, preserve Jordan’s share of water from the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers, restore sovereignty over lands occupied by Israel and pave the way for regional peace once a Palestinian state is born.

The vision shared by King Hussain and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was grand but proved to be unrealistic. Under Rabin, Israel would reach peace deals with the Palestinians, Syria followed by other Arab countries. But to do so it would have to return the Golan Heights to Syria and recognise a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. The sense of optimism, regional cooperation and lasting peace had dissipated when Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a radical Israeli.

His death marked the rise of Netanyahu, who had a totally different agenda; one that sought to deny Palestinian rights under Oslo, but also challenged Jordanian national interests on many occasions.

Israeli political impasse

King Abdullah understands the need to stay engaged with Israel in the hope that political change in Israel itself will reflect on common issues. That seems unlikely today as Israel finds itself facing an impasse having gone through two Knesset elections this year with no sign that an Israeli government will be formed anytime soon.

A new coalition led by the Blue and White party under Benny Gantz may change things a little, but it is important to remember that the party shares Netanyahu’s pledge to annex the Jordan Valley and most colonies in the West Bank. King Abdullah insinuated last month if the annexation goes ahead it will affect the state of peace between Israel on the one hand and Jordan and Egypt on the other. The king realises that such a move will end any hope for the two-state solution and will put Jordan before tough choices and challenges in terms of the future of more than two million Palestine refugees in the kingdom and his role as custodian of holy places in East Jerusalem, among others.

But while Netanyahu may view the peace agreement with Jordan differently, his top military and security officials have a different take. They realise that Jordan’s stability is vital to Israel and that as the region goes through major geopolitical tumults, Jordan’s role in fighting terrorism and securing its long border with Israel cannot be underestimated. The tense peace holds — for now!

—Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.