JERUSALEM (Nov. 13)
Israeli experts say the recent terrorist attacks in Amman, the worst in Jordan’s history, won’t shake the monarchy’s pro-Western orientation — but could be a harbinger of things to come for Israel. “There is no immediate danger to the regime of King Abdullah II of Jordan,” Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, said in an interview with JTA.
The mastermind behind scores of terrorist attacks in Iraq, the Jordanian arch-terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is believed to have planned the Nov. 9 triple bombing in Amman, which killed at least 57 people and wounded nearly 100.
But the Jordanian regime is strong enough to survive the attacks, thanks to a strong army, an efficient security service and a general public interest in maintaining stability, Shamir said.
If Al-Zarqawi “believed that the attacks would weaken the regime and gain public support, he was wrong,” Shamir said. “By and large, most Jordanians don’t want terrorism.”
Still, the attacks struck Jordan’s soft spot — major tourist and business hotels in the heart of the capital.
Jordan was added to a growing list of targets on Al-Qaida’s hit list, from New York to Indonesia. Together the attacks have taken thousands of innocent lives, but only in one case — coordinated bombings on Madrid commuter trains in March 2004 — did they shake the target country’s political establishment and force a change in policy.
Al-Qaida long has declared war against “Arab leaders collaborating with the Americans.” America and its Middle East allies are the immediate enemy; Israel’s turn will come soon, according to Al-Qaida threats.
Abdullah cut short a visit to Kazakhstan because of the bombings and canceled a visit to Israel intended to mark the 10th anniversary of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
“Canceling the visit to Israel was only a technical measure,” Shamir said. “The attacks will have no effect whatsoever on Jordan’s friendly policy toward Israel.”
The depth of that friendliness among the general population is still in question, as one reaction to the bombings make clear. Indeed, some in Jordan are blaming the terrorist attacks on Israel.
“People don’t blame Israel out of a vacuum,” Rami Khoury, a Jordanian political commentator based in Lebanon, told The New York Times, explaining that “Israel has caused a lot of grief for Arab people one way or the other.”
Conspiracy theories blaming Israel often percolate in the Arab world after terrorist attacks.
Of course, Jordan’s Hashemite rulers have overcome much more serious challenges in the past. The regime has been on shaky ground ever since Abdullah’s grandfather, Abdullah I, was murdered in 1951 on the steps of the Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem because of his willingness to contemplate peace with Israel.
Then came attempts to overthrow the young King Hussein’s regime in the mid-1950s, as well as Yasser Arafat’s attempt to create a de facto PLO state in Jordan in 1970. King Hussein responded by killing thousands of Palestinians and forcing Arafat into exile in Lebanon.
Some 35 years later there are sufficient forces in Jordanian society that may not support the regime directly, but which are interested in its stability. They include the Palestinian economic elite, which controls Jordan’s private sector.
They also include much of the large Iraqi immigrant community, estimated at 700,000 to 800,000 people. By and large, the Iraqis are well-to-do refugees who fled Saddam Hussein’s brutality and who are likely to stay in Jordan until the situation in Iraq stabilizes. They’re responsible for the recent construction boom in Amman, reminiscent of the Palestinian construction boom following the massive exodus of Palestinians from Kuwait after the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.
The backbone of the Jordanian regime continues to be the Bedouin tribes who perceive Abdullah, like Hussein before him, as the “father” of the nation, a symbol of national unity that should not be hurt.
The attacks don’t have a direct effect on Israel, but they’re a reminder of Israel’s own vulnerability.
Israel regards the Hashemite regime’s stability as a security asset. It considers Jordan an essential buffer between Iraq and the West Bank, as well as a barrier between hard-line Syria and the Saudi oil fields.
Israel always has been troubled by the scenario of an Islamic or Palestinian takeover of the Jordan, and has treated the Hashemite regime with respect and suspicion — respect because the Hashemites maintained cordial if surreptitious relations with Israel since the early days of the Jewish state, suspicion because of concern that hostile elements might take over, considering that nearly 60 percent of Jordan’s 3.5 million citizens are Palestinian.
Since the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994, the monarchy has had to maneuver between its reliance on Israel as the best guarantor of the regime and its commitments to the Arab world, including the Palestinians.
Over the last several years, Islamists and ultra-nationalists waged an “anti-normalization” campaign against ties with Israel, targeting Jordanian professionals who dared to establish business relations with Israeli colleagues. But there are strong security ties between Israel and Jordan that are less advertised, and the two countries’ intelligence services cooperate, as do security patrols along the border.
Some warn that the Amman bombings are a sign that Al-Qaida is getting closer to Israel. Though the long border between Israel and Jordan has been remarkably peaceful for more than 30 years, it could be crossed easily by hostile elements.
As Alex Fishman, Yediot Achronot’s military analyst wrote this week, “the writing is on the wall.”
What can Israel do? Not much. In the long run it can seal the border between the two countries more effectively. The immediate measures to be taken are greater cooperation between the security forces, and a watchful eye along the border.
On the political level, Israel needs to strengthen economic ties with the Jordanian business community. The greater the interest in normalization with Israel, the greater the stability — though the dearth of ties is due mainly to Jordanian recalcitrance, not Israeli.
A case for stronger ties is Jordan’s Qualified Industrial Zone with Israel, a benefit of the peace agreement. Under the deal, if Jordan and Israel collaborate on products, they enter the U.S. duty-free.
Thanks to the zone, Jordan has increased its exports to the United States more than 10-fold in the past decade. That has created tens of thousands of new jobs in the northern Irbid region, relieving unemployment.
Israeli high-tech companies employ several dozen Jordanian programmers who work in Jordan.
But the main problem lies far away from Israel’s reach, along the Jordanian-Iraqi border. As long as the instability in Iraq continues, it’s likely to spill over to Jordan. And like a flood, the waves may reach Israel’s shores as well.