Signs of Israel’s changing neighborhood

Some saw as surprising Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s remarks before the Knesset Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security in which he said that Jordan is a sovereign and independent country, and that talk about it being a substitute for Palestine was negative and destabilizing. Lieberman belongs to an ideological camp within the Israeli right that is opposed to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. He is one of those who were convinced that this state "lies in eastern Jordan, which is the eastern part of Palestine" and also that "it is not logical that the Palestinians receive two states; one state is enough." Lieberman’s ideas on this match those of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed in his famous book, "A Place Among the Nations", as well as statements and attitudes of many Israeli officials, civilian and military. These all contradict the peace agreement between Jo! rdan and Israel signed in 1994, in favor of the "Jordan option" that states that Jordan is Palestine. They are also in lieu of solving the "Palestinian problem" according to the terms of reference of the peace process and international resolutions.

In recent years, the chronic impasse in the "peace process", and the declining opportunities for an independent Palestinian state under the heavy weight of settlement and accelerated Judaization in the West Bank have reactivated the "Jordanian option", which has once again become an attractive route for Israelis and returned strongly to the agenda of the Israeli right, which is sliding increasingly towards militancy and extremism. The Jordan option has even being championed by some right-wing US groups.

To return to Lieberman’s statement, however, I would argue that it should not be met with surprise. Instead, it should be understood in the context of the regional geopolitical situation, which is not in Israel’s favor. In a previous article for bitterlemons, published on November 24, 2010 one month before the outbreak of the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia and the start of radical regional transformations that are working against Israel, I argued that the Israeli leadership lacked vision and had been blinded by a sense of infinite power. I warned that it must try to see into the future, into what lies ahead. Still, even today, there has been no change in Israel’s myopia–even in this new atmosphere that is impossible to ignore.

The season of the Arab spring brings with it uncertainty. Israel is concerned about the changing situation in Egypt in light of Hosni Mubarak’s removal, the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai, and the landslide victory of the Islamists (Salafists along with the Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt’s elections. Although I am convinced that Egypt will not engage in war with Israel in the short and medium term, what happened in Egypt–regardless of the nature of the next regime–is an irreplaceable loss for Israel and its allies.

Equally important is the American withdrawal in Iraq. Already the withdrawal from Iraq has cost the United States itself–through military defeat and financial crisis–but then there is the trouble of protecting Jordan against the strategic vacuum created by the US departure. The likely candidate to fill this vacuum is apparent through the growing Iranian role in Iraq. This would lead to the vulnerability of Jordan, which is already undergoing unrest and deep disturbances, even among the tribes in middle Jordan. Although the economic situation and difficult living conditions in Jordan (unemployment, low income, a water crisis and lack of prospects for radical political reforms) are the main drivers of this unrest, Jordan’s relations with Israel are also not satisfactory to most Jordanians, especially in the absence of a sufficient Israeli response to the peace process and Israel’s violation of Jordanians’ religious rights in Jerusalem. Add to this public feeling King Abdulla! h II’s personal bitterness over Israel’s positions, expressed through his recent public statements about his pessimism over the peace process.

Israel is not interested in undermining the Jordanian regime and knows that the fall of the monarchy in Jordan in a scorching scenario would lead to chaos, cross-border attacks, and (in the best case imaginable) the emergence of a system led or dominated by Islamists. And so Israel gives signals to encourage the Jordanian regime.

Among these was Israeli President Shimon Peres’ unplanned visit to Amman on November 28. Peres met with Netanyahu before leaving, according to one news report, "reaffirming the importance of strengthening the strategic good ties between Israel and Jordan." It is also in this context that we must understand Netanyahu’s last-minute decision to delay the demolition of the Mughrabi walkway in Jerusalem’s Old City, after Egyptian and Jordanian warnings of possible unrest in the whole Arab world. And it is in this context that we must understand Lieberman’s sudden "change of heart". Regardless, these signals are insufficient and will not alter the fact that no progress has been made in the peace process–it is clear that Israel has not yet paid its dues.