JERUSALEM (Oct. 26)
Ten years ago this week, in the midst of a desert storm in the Arava valley, the late King Hussein of Jordan and the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel signed a peace accord ushering in an era of hope that relations between the neighbors would become a model for a new Middle East. The 10th anniversary of that momentous day went by this week with little fanfare and no official celebrations marking the milestone.
The Israel-Jordan peace agreement was like the official marriage of a couple that had been carrying on a secret relationship for years. The leaders of both countries sighed with relief, pleased that they would no longer have to hide their affair.
Today, ties between Israel and its eastern neighbor are not at their best. This, though, has less to do with the couple itself not getting along than it does with tension inside the “family” — the Arab world, that is, and in particular the Palestinians, who comprise two-thirds of Jordan’s 5.5 million population.
“We cannot ignore what’s happening in the West Bank and Gaza, neither can we ignore terrorism,” Marwan Mu’ashar, Jordan’s foreign minister, told Israeli journalists in Amman recently.
The Israel-Jordan peace deal was followed by inflated optimism. Rosy scenarios envisaged other countries in the Middle East following suit, the economies of both countries prospering, the border opening up for mutual tourism and trade thriving — and spilling over from Jordan to the rest of the Arab world.
But this week in Amman, Israeli Ambassador Ya’acov Hadas sat in a fortified embassy, totally isolated from the local political community, lamenting the stagnation in relations.
Meanwhile, masses of Jordanians marked the anniversary by demonstrating against ties with the Jewish state.
“Our relations are like the relations between a couple,” Hadas said in an interview with the Ma’ariv newspaper. “We have ups and downs, quarrels and appeasements.”
The “downs” are the result primarily of the collapse of the peace process with the Palestinians and, long before that, the emergence of a strong anti-Israeli lobby in Jordan.
The first widely publicized misunderstanding took place in 1996, two years after the peace agreement, when Israel opened a new exit to an archaeological tunnel next to the Western Wall.
Palestinians claimed Israel was trying to collapse the mosques on the Temple Mount. As a result of the incitement, Palestinian Authority security forces faced off against Israeli soldiers, leaving some 70 people dead.
Later that year came Israel’s botched assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in downtown Amman. Then, in March 1997, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of teenaged Israeli girls on a field trip along the border, killing seven. The soldier became a hero in Jordan, and Jordanians were outraged when King Hussein apologized to the girls’ families.
Relations really took a turn for the worse after September 2000, when the Palestinian intifada began. Two Israeli diplomats were injured in shooting attacks, and an Israeli businessman was murdered in Jordan in August 2001.
Jordan is particularly perturbed by construction of Israel’s West Bank security barrier, which Jordan says jeopardizes its own security by prompting fears of a new influx of Palestinians.
Israeli bureaucracy and lack of initiative bears some of the blame for the stagnation in relations between the two countries.
A case in point: Eight years ago Jordan and Israel signed an agreement on special arrangements for the neighboring Red Sea port towns of Aqaba and Eilat.
The agreement stipulated that Israel and Jordan would cooperate on issues relating to the two cities. There was talk of cooperation on environmental management, pest control, flood management, town zoning and land use policies, energy and natural resources, emergency response services, and the promotion of binational and multinational events.
The agreement also called for the establishment of a Special Tourism Zone in the region, in which cross-border tourism would be encouraged by simplifying crossing procedures; a binational Special Economic Zone; and a binational Red Sea Marine Peace Park.
All were dreams. All remained on paper.
Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, once spoke of an agreement to transport merchandise by truck from Jordan to the port of Haifa. The agreement was delayed because government ministries could not agree which of them would cover the approximately $110 cost for the police motorcyclist to escort the motorcade.
According to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, some 150,000 Israelis visited Jordan last year, the vast majority of them Israeli Arabs. Some 18,400 Jordanians visited Israel.
But the main obstacle to normalization between the two countries is located in Jordan.
Since the signing of the peace treaty in 1994, Jordan’s monarchy has tried to maneuver carefully between its reliance on Israel as the behind-the-scenes guarantor of the regime and its desire to maintain close ties with the Arab world, which frowns on friendly relations with the Jewish state.
Shortly after the peace treaty was signed, Jordan’s powerful trade unions formed an anti-normalization committee that essentially ruins the career of anyone cooperating with Israel.
Tareq Al-Humaidi, a Jordanian journalist who published “The Voice of Peace,” a local pro-peace newspaper, was threatened and condemned by the anti-normalization committee. When he tried to take the committee to court, the Jordanian Bar Association disbarred Humaidi’s lawyer.
The committee has operated mafia-style, and Jordanian authorities have done very little to counter this activity, thus legitimizing the strong anti-Israeli feelings in Jordan.
“The situation becomes more and more difficult,” Aharon Efroni, an Israeli businessman told JTA this week.
Efroni, a Jew born in Iraq, makes a living bringing together businessmen from both countries.
“Unlike the past, Jordanian businessmen insist that no mention of Israel and no Hebrew will appear on documents I present,” he said. “I make a point of not spending nights in Jordan, although I have not received any threats.”
Still, according to an official statement from Israel’s Foreign Ministry on the occasion of the anniversary, Israel regards Jordan as “an island of regional stability.”
Mutual trade between the two countries rose from $13 million in 1996 to $130 million in 2003. Israel now holds the sixth spot on Jordan’s export list.
Jordan’s exports to Israel reached $130 million in the first seven months of this year, an increase of 15 percent over the same period last year. Israeli exports to Jordan made an even greater leap, increasing in the same period by $78 million, a rise of 40 percent.
But the most important “peace fruit” for Jordan has been the Qualified Industrial Zone agreement with Israel. Under the deal, if Jordan and Israel work together on products in the designated area, the products can enter the U.S. duty free.
Thanks to the industrial zone, Jordan has increased its exports to the United States by more than 10 times, making the United States the No. 1 destination for Jordanian exports. Annual Jordanian exports to the United States are expected to reach the $1 billion mark at the end of this year, compared to $40 million just five years ago.
This has relieved unemployment in the northern Irbid region, creating some 30,000 new jobs.
Israeli textile factories moved to Jordan, and Israeli high-tech companies employ several dozen Jordanian programmers who do their work in Jordan. Likewise, the two countries continue to develop joint water and tourism projects.
There also is a strong, if relatively unadvertised, security relationship between the two neighbors. Their intelligence services operate in close cooperation, including security patrols along their border.
In a hopeful development this week, an Israeli-Jordanian committee met to discuss construction of a new joint academic center in the Arava region.
The committee will map out a site for the “Bridging the Rift” binational university. Construction work on the new campus is scheduled to begin by the middle of next year.