AMMAN, Jordan (JTA) — As one of the Arab world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries, Jordan is in a tough spot. It shares borders with Iraq, an anarchic state that has become a battlefield for terrorists and Islamic extremists; Syria, an illicit arms trafficker and close ally of Iran; and Israel, the regional pariah whose Palestinian problem is an omnipresent threat to Jordanian stability. The country has an estimated 25 percent unemployment rate, no oil wealth and friends in the West the rest of its neighbors love to hate. Perhaps ironically, these perils are precisely what make Jordan’s relationship with Israel so indispensable. “Jordan’s strategic support is Israel,” said David Hacham, an Arab affairs expert at the Israeli Defense Ministry. “We are the factor that enables the survival of the regime in Jordan.” Jordan’s relationship with Israel provides the Hashemite kingdom with the Western security blanket it needs to keep its economy strong and fend off enemies both foreign and domestic, critics and supporters of the regime say. For its part, Israel benefits from close security cooperation and intelligence sharing with Jordan. In April, for example, Jordanian officials arrested a domestic Hamas cell and seized a cache of missiles, explosives and other weapons they said was smuggled into the kingdom. In addition, Jordan’s peace with Israel gives the Jewish state the benefit of not having to worry about attacks along its longest border, a span of more than 200 miles. Jordan also represents a buffer against invasion of Israel by hostile armies to the east, such as those of Iraq, Iran or the Persian Gulf states. “Israel sees in its relationship with Jordan a valuable strategic partnership,” said Yacov Hadas, Israel’s former ambassador to Jordan and the vice general director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s division for Middle East affairs. “We are two neighbors with a wide range of interests and common problems.” As a result, relations between Jordan and Israel have deepened in the last few years — even though during that same period Jordan’s King Abdullah II has issued harsh public condemnations of Israeli military actions, including this summer’s war in Lebanon and Israel’s handling of the Palestinian intifada. Jordan and Israel face some of the same key threats: Iran’s rising power, an anti-Western regime in Damascus, restive Palestinians and Islamic terrorists. “We’ve been surrounded by bullies for many decades,” King Abdullah said of Jordan in a recent interview with Time magazine. “We are averaging nine to 12 months between crises and they are getting worse and worse. All of us in the area, including the Israelis, are feeling more and more insecure. Nobody knows where this is taking us. The peace camp needs to turn the boat around in the other direction. If not, we sink — all of us.” “We’re in the same boat with Jordan,” observed an Israeli diplomatic source, noting that two members of President Bush’s so-called axis of evil border Jordan. This source spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of his position vis-à-vis the Arab world. “The greater the external threat, the closer Jordan and Israel will be,” he said. “Jordan is a true friend. It’s not a cold peace like with Egypt. Ties — but with strings attached Through its peace with Israel, Jordan has been able to strengthen its alliance with the United States, resulting in significant increases in military and economic assistance from the world’s superpower. As with Egypt, Jordan became one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid after it signed its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Jordan gets approximately $450 million per year in U.S. aid, enjoys special free-trade status with the United States, and was forgiven $700 million in debt to America after the 1994 treaty was signed. Some critics in Jordan, however, bemoan the regime’s close ties with Israel and the United States. They charge that rather than cultivating support among the Jordanian public through popular policies, the regime cements its hold on power by other means. It relies excessively on U.S. and Israeli support, excludes the country’s large Palestinian population from the political and military elite through unofficial discrimination, and suppresses viable political opposition by blocking genuine democratic reform. Jordanian government officials declined to be interviewed for this story. The king also depends on his intelligence forces to quash internal political opposition, according to Foad Al-Khalafat, an ex-official from the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab movement that seeks global Islamic domination through the establishment of Islamic regimes. “The king is not a politician,” observed Khalafat, who chairs a political research center called Rum for Studyings & Publishing. “When you are not a politician, you rely on security because you are afraid. A mafia is running the state and King Abdullah is one of the head mafiosos.” ‘Nobody Scares Me’ The king hasn’t made things any easier for himself by railing against nearby regimes, Khalafat added, including Iraq, Iran and Syria, with whom Jordan has a border dispute. Such rhetoric could invite belligerence against the kingdom from powerful neighbors, he warned. Abdullah says he isn’t worried. “Nobody scares me,” the king said in his interview with Time. “If you know Jordanian history, we have been surrounded by testosterone for many, many decades.” “Jordan is in a very tight spot,” said Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “Jordan has a very bad image among the Arab public at large.” Hamarneh cited Jordan’s ties with Israel and support for the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror as sources of Arab hostility toward the regime. When the war between Israel and Hezbollah broke out this summer, Abdullah’s first words of criticism were for Hezbollah, not the Jewish state, further angering many Jordanians. This hostility has made Jordan a target for terrorists. In early September, a gunman in Amman opened fire on a group of Western tourists, killing one and wounding several others. In November 2005, a group called Al-Qaida in Iraq blew up three hotels in Amman, killing 57 people. The terrorists said they targeted Jordan because it was a “backyard garden for the enemies of the religion, Jews and crusaders.” Although the 2005 attacks prompted mass rallies in Amman against Al-Qaida, many Jordanians share Al-Qaida’s negative views of the Jordanian regime. But because it is a crime to criticize the king in Jordan, few Jordanians are willing to go public with their criticism of the king. The one notable exception is the Islamists, such as Khalafat, whose popularity and religious credentials embolden them. “The political role of this country’s regime is to protect Israel,” Khalafat said. “The treaty with Israel looks like mastership of Jordan.” Whether or not the Jordanian regime enjoys popular support or the plaudits of democracy advocates, however, is not Israel’s concern. More important to the Jewish state is the monarchy’s firm grip on power, which ensures that the peace between the two countries endures despite overwhelming anti-Israel sentiment among the Jordanian populace.