Middle East

Domestic pressures behind Jordan land move

An Israeli soldier checks a worker crossing the Israeli-Jordanian border as he returns from an Israeli pepper plantation.

AMMAN: A decision by Jordan’s King Abdullah II to reclaim territory leased to Israel for a quarter of a century was spurred by domestic pressures and the Arab nation’s struggling economy, experts said. The move announced last weekend risks sparking a crisis between the neighboring countries that signed an historic peace treaty in 1994, they warned.

King Abdullah said his country had notified Israel that it wants to take back two border areas: Baqura in the northern province of Irbid and Al-Ghamr in the southern province of Aqaba.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would like to open negotiations with Jordan to keep the current arrangement in place.

The Hashemite kingdom said that it was willing to engage in talks but insisted on its right to reclaim the land.

Israel occupied Jordanian territories including Al-Ghamr in the 1967 Middle East War and seized Baqura when its forces infiltrated the kingdom in 1950.

During peace talks, Jordan agreed to lease the lands to Israel for a 25-year renewable period under annexes of the treaty that lay down a one-year notice period, with the kingdom retaining sovereignty.

King Abdullah’s announcement Sunday came days before the end of this notice period.

“The king had two choices: either risking a crisis with Israel, or risking protests and a worsening of the internal situation,” said Oraib Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman.

“Jordanians on the street are angry, especially over the economy, and they don’t need new crises or disappointments,” he told AFP.

Jordan, largely dependent on foreign aid and devoid of natural resources, has been plagued by economic woes, with a jobless rate of 18.5 percent and around 20 percent of the population teetering on the brink of poverty as consumer prices are rising. The king’s announcement came after a series of demonstrations calling for the return of Baqura and Al-Ghamr organized by lawmakers, political parties, trade unions and activists.

The move was greeted with joy by many Jordanians.

“The Jordanian people are happy with this courageous decision,” teacher Mohammad Hassan said.

Suad Yussef, a housewife, said it was a “historic moment.”

For Kirk H. Sowell, an analyst for Utica Risk Services, the decision was “the least that King Abdullah can do to play the nationalist card.”

“It is definitely directed at the domestic audience” in a country with “loads of internal socio-economic problems” but “few options in pushing back at Israel,” Sowell told AFP.

Rantawi said that “going back on this decision is impossible” as it would be likely to destabilize the kingdom.

In June, a parliamentary delegation from the opposition Islamist bloc Al-Islah visited Baqura, where Jordanians need permission to enter.

The delegation was headed by Saleh al-Armuti, who said “the decision is that of the king, the people’s government and the Parliament and we strongly support and defend it.”

“We will go further by demanding the cancellation of all agreements signed with the Zionist enemy,” he told AFP.

Opinion polls have repeatedly found that the peace treaty with Israel is overwhelmingly opposed by Jordanians, more than half of whom are of Palestinian origin.

The Baqura zone amounts to 6 square kilometers and Al-Ghamr covers 4 square kilometers land where Israeli farmers cultivate cereals, fruit and vegetables.

Rantawi does not rule out the possibility that Israel will “impede the implementation of the Jordanian decision.”

“Jordan could face a political, economic and legal battle with Israel,” he said. “Netanyahu wants negotiations to extend the agreement, which would be a suicidal choice for Jordan.”

Relations between the two countries have been tense since the killing of two Jordanians by an Israeli Embassy security guard in Amman in July last year.

But Sowell said he believes Israel does not have the legal means to challenge the Jordanian decision.

“Israel has means of pushing back on Jordan, by cutting off the water, or not lobbying for Jordan in [the U.S.] Congress as they normally do, but whether they should is a different question,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 26, 2018, on page 9.

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