Where Israel has every reason to help

Any attempt to understand the current interaction between Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel has to begin with the Hashemite Kingdom’s broader regional strategic environment.

The current Arab revolutionary wave has affected Jordan, provoking demonstrations from several quarters, including tribes traditionally loyal to the monarchy but also a resurgent Islamist movement. But even without the "Arab spring", Jordan has always had to contend with pressures from the four Middle East geographical entities it separates: Iraq from the east and Israel/Palestine from the west; Saudi Arabia from the south and Syria from the north. Currently it faces an extreme reality on virtually all sides.

Syria is falling apart, projecting refugee pressures as well as fear of revolutionary overflow. Iraq is entering a new era with completion of the American withdrawal, and Jordan fears growing Iranian and Shiite pressures, including more refugees, from that direction. The absence of a peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization has generated an unprecedented low in bilateral relations with Israel. Egyptian pressures to effect Hamas-PLO reconciliation and Islamist pressures inside Jordan are causing considerable unease in Amman. Finally, Saudi Arabia, concerned for the kingdom’s stability, is providing financial aid and a possible role in the Gulf Cooperation Council, but at a cost of policy demands by Riyadh that could constrain King Abdullah II’s freedom of maneuver and even his freedom to carry out much-needed political reforms.

Taken together, all these factors have created the impression in several quarters, including in Israel, that the king is weak and the Hashemite Kingdom is in danger of real destabilization. This in turn has recently generated a series of rather unusual acts and gestures on all sides.

One was a statement by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reassuring Jordan that Israel supports its national integrity. The Jordanian leadership periodically expresses anger and dismay at declarations by Israelis on the far right to the effect that the "Jordan is Palestine" formula (known in Amman as the "alternative homeland" strategy) is the best way for Israel to "solve" the Palestinian question and hold on to the West Bank. That Lieberman, who is not known for his graciousness toward Israel’s Arab neighbors, should make a declaration effectively condemning this approach, was presumably designed to reassure King Abdullah II on a sensitive issue. The vast majority of Israeli politicians and strategic thinkers view Jordan as Israel’s effective "strategic depth" toward the east (Iraq, Iran) and with respect to the Palestinian issue, and therefore value the stability of the Hashemite Kingdom.

A second, minor gesture of conciliation was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent last-minute decision to yield to a Jordanian/Egyptian request and temporarily suspend the dismantling of the Mughrabi bridge walkway leading from the Western Wall plaza to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Under the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, Amman has a say in issues affecting holy places in Jerusalem. Israel’s intention regarding the walkway is in no way sinister. But Jordan will oppose any Israeli initiative in this regard as long as its relations with Israel are so poor. Should Netanyahu yield to pressures from the Jerusalem municipality and allow the bridge to be replaced, a large part of the attention of the Muslim world could again focus on Jerusalem, with Israel accused of ignoring Muslim sensitivities and Jordan held partially responsible.

This brings us to the Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian triangular relationship. More than any other Arab state, Jordan desperately needs to be able to point to a fruitful Israeli-Palestinian peace process in order both to reassure its own Palestinian population and to envisage a robust Hashemite future once a Palestinian state exists to the west of the Jordan River. This, Netanyahu is plainly uninterested in providing. And this, more than any other factor, explains why the king refuses to meet with him.

In contrast, last month the king did meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres. And he paid a rare visit to Ramallah where the main topic of discussion with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was apparently Abbas’ ongoing dialogue, under Egyptian aegis, with Hamas concerning reconciliation and elections. Any concession by Abbas to Hamas could affect Jordan’s relationship with the Islamists, which in any case is influenced by the dramatic achievements of political Islam in Egypt and Tunisia.

Many of Jordan’s problems and fears do not lend themselves to easy solutions. But the Hashemite Kingdom’s current quandary certainly offers the Netanyahu government yet another reason–as if it needed more–to move forward decisively on the Palestinian issue.