October 26 marks 20 years since Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty that is as controversial today as it was then. Criticism is largely based on how the treaty has affected the Palestinians and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. However, this overlooks Amman’s reasons for making and maintaining peace – a strategic necessity that is in its national interest (lest we forget, every country acts primarily in its own interests).
The treaty’s announcement caused public anger in Palestine, Jordan, and the wider Arab world. It was viewed as betraying the Palestinians and a united Arab negotiating position. However, a year earlier, the Palestinians had embarked on the Oslo peace process, there had been talks with Lebanon and Syria, and Israel had already made peace with Egypt, its strongest Arab foe.
Additionally, the 1990s saw the start of varying degrees of normalisation with other Arab states. The lack of a unified Arab front meant Jordan did not want to be left out, and unlike Egypt, was not treated by Arab states as a pariah for making peace unilaterally.
Amman was also regionally isolated and economically devastated following the 1991 Gulf war. Sanctions on Iraq meant the loss of Jordan’s biggest trading partner and supplier of discounted oil. Amman’s preference for Arab League mediation rather than US-led military action was perceived as supporting Iraq.
Loss of Gulf aid
This resulted in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid from Gulf states, which shut Amman out of their lucrative markets and expelled hundreds of thousands of Jordanians. Billions of dollars in remittances were lost, and these Jordanians, who had been their country’s main supplier of foreign currency, became an economic burden when they returned home (as did the influx of Iraqi and other refugees).
Jordan knows it is a militarily weak and economically poor country in a turbulent region, so it has to perform delicate balancing acts to ensure its security by minimising tensions with its neighbours. It knew it would gain more from a peace with Israel that did not require major concessions…
Unemployment soared to 30 percent, a third of the population lived in poverty, and the important tourism sector was hit. Jordan lost some $4bn in the first eight post-war months alone. To counter its losses, Amman desperately sought – and received – a peace dividend in its treaty with Israel.
Washington forgave over $700m of Jordan’s debts, and resumed and increased economic and military assistance. Jordan is now among the biggest recipients of US aid. Other countries also resumed their support. Additionally, Amman could now trade with Israelis and Palestinians, and receive them as visitors.
Jordan did not need to make major concessions in return, as its issues with Israel were relatively easy to resolve. This may explain why 80 percent of Jordanians supported the treaty following its signing, according to a poll by the University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies.
The end of their 46-year state of war did not bring any major change on the ground, because they had not fought each other since 1967, and there had long been tacit cooperation. This, and the ease with which they resolved their issues, explains why international peacekeepers have not subsequently been necessary. Their mutual recognition of the importance of their ties has resulted in quick resolutions of bilateral tensions.
Jordan knows it is a militarily weak and economically poor country in a turbulent region, so it has to perform delicate balancing acts to ensure its security by minimising tensions with its neighbours. It knew it would gain more from a peace with Israel that did not require major concessions, than from a continued state of war with a much more powerful adversary. This realpolitik has paid off, given the increased regional chaos in recent years.
Neighbouring Syria and Iraq are in turmoil, Jordan is directly threatened by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and it is struggling with a gargantuan refugee burden. In this dangerous context, peace with Israel has brought an important measure of relief.
Oasis of calm
Jordanians know that their country is a relative oasis of calm in the Middle East (achieved by strategy, not coincidence), and that severing relations with Israel would jeopardise this. That is why opposition to the treaty has never reached levels that would destabilise the country.
In Jordan or Egypt, calling for breaking ties with Israel is far easier than implementing it, because the latter requires careful consideration of the consequences. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood condemned Cairo’s treaty while in opposition, then assured the international community of its commitment to peace when in power.
If Egypt has no intention of severing ties, Jordan doing so would be a major strategic blunder. A hostile Israel could limit Jordanian access to vital water, lobby the US to cut aid on which Amman relies, and ignore the treaty’s stipulation that “involuntary movement of persons in such a way as to adversely prejudice the security of either Party should not be permitted”.
This means an increasingly right-wing Israel may feel unimpeded in implementing the long-held idea of Jordan as a substitute Palestinian state by expelling West Bank Palestinian en masse.
The debate should not be about whether to maintain the peace deal, but how Jordan can maximise its benefits and be more assertive when necessary. However, Israel should not take the treaty for granted. Its current political debate about sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif compound, over which the treaty recognises Jordan’s custodianship, has led Amman to warn that it may review the treaty if Israel pushes ahead.
Furthermore, Israel cannot expect Jordan to accept the ever-growing plight of the Palestinians, not least because they constitute the majority of Jordan’s population. Things may deteriorate to the point where Amman cannot stem public anger without encouraging a serious backlash from a population already frustrated by various domestic issues.
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.