For Israelis, Eyes On Jordan, Egypt


Tel Aviv — Is Jordan next?

As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government teetered amid a week of mass demonstrations, Israelis were nervously casting their eyes at neighboring Jordan, with speculation of a regional domino effect that could weaken the Jewish state’s strategic alliance with the Hashemite monarchy and boost an Islamist opposition.

But even as King Abdullah dismissed his government on Tuesday, Israeli analysts predicted that it was unlikely that the Egyptian uprising could be replicated on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.

Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and serves as a buffer against attacks from Israel’s east, did experience demonstrations in recent weeks of government officials and ex-military men. But the existence of ethnic divisions within the country between Jordanians and Palestinians may help King Abdullah remain in power by cultivating those rivalries.

“What drove the Egyptian demonstrations is that Egyptian society is essentially homogenous ethnically and religiously. There is a unity,” said Assaf David, a fellow at Hebrew University’s Truman Institute who believes Abdullah will survive.

“When east Jordanians take to the street, and the Palestinian opposition takes to the streets, you have mutual fears of … a civil war, and the regime plays on this fear. You can’t be united against the regime if you are afraid that your compatriot will turn against you.”

After Egypt, Jordan is Israel’s top ally in the region. Israel’s longest border is with Jordan, which is part of an alliance of Western-backed states that opposes growing Iranian influence in the region. Jordan has also helped Israel and the Palestinian Authority restore law and order in the West Bank by training security forces.

But many have pointed to Jordan as a candidate for protests because it has an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood that sits in the parliamentary opposition and criticizes the relationship with Israel. Moreover, Palestinians make up about half the population.

David said that King Abdullah is considered less in touch with the average Jordanian than his late father, King Hussein, because he is viewed as more liberal and Western.

At the same time, Jordan’s economy is “far worse” than it was a decade ago, as the government downsizes and privatizes companies, David said. He said the thousands of demonstrators in Jordan were significant, prompting state media to stifle reports of the demonstrations and bend over backwards to emphasize King Abdullah’s role looking after the citizens.

The view that Jordan’s monarchy thrives on demographic divisions was echoed by Hillel Frisch, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. He said that Mubarak’s and the former Tunisian president’s successes at centralizing power and weakening opposition groups sowed the seeds of their downfalls.

“When you are very centralized, you invite opposition. Monarchies cultivate social differences,” Frisch said.

“The Palestinians are always perceived as a threat to the monarchy, but basically they’ve been an asset because they’ve divided the country. The monarchy depends on division, and the monarchy is a moderator. Society is healthier in Jordan. The royal family makes sure to identify with both sides.”

There is also concern about the fallout from the Egyptian crisis in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. On Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah said that it would decide in a week on a date to hold overdue municipal elections. Both the Jordanian and the Palestinian decisions seem to be evidence of growing pressures in the region for more democracy.

“Regimes will [now] be more open to what their people have to say. It will make rulers in the government think about how they can improve,” said Yoav Stern a former Arab affairs reporter for Haaretz.

“Something like this has never happened. This is an earthquake; everyone is following it. It’s a major event in the Middle East.”

Many fear that the fallout could tip the scales in the rivalry between Hamas and the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood gains influence as part of a new government in Egypt.

Mubarak has been a key regional patron for PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The Egyptian ruler has helped mediate negotiations with Israel and has served as an important ally against the militant Islamic party Hamas since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip three years ago.

If the wave of protests were to empower the Muslim Brotherhood, some predict it would result in significant shift in the balance in favor of Hamas by boosting its control in Gaza and helping it to grow stronger in the West Bank. It could also give Hamas a leg up in talks to reconcile its split with the PA in the West Bank.

“If the Muslim Brotherhood groups gain a prominent place in the government, this would definitely help consolidate Hamas’ hold on Gaza,” said Atiyeh Jawwabra, a political science professor at Al Quds University. “Political Islam could overwhelm the Arab world.”

A new government less oriented toward Washington could weaken Abbas by exposing him to pressure from to Arab critics like Syria that have assailed the Palestinians for their willingness to negotiate with Israel. Such a government might also decide to open up the border between Gaza and Egypt to more civilians, and for the first time, as a commercial crossing — bowing to popular sentiment in the Arab world complying with a longtime request from Hamas.

Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar declined to take sides in the Egyptian standoff, saying the Islamist militants don’t want to “interfere in Arab affairs” for fear it will be punished if it ends up on the wrong side. Hamas does, however, hope the border traffic will be boosted, reducing its dependence on goods from Israel.

“We are hoping to have a direct contact with Egypt through commerce,” he said. “Everybody is looking for that because their goods are so much cheaper.”

The ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood would boost political Islamist opposition groups in neighboring countries like Jordan, Syria, and among Palestinians inside of Israel.

“The Egyptians have always stood as supporters of the Palestinian Authority,” said an official in Abbas’ office who asked not to be named. “It will change the whole formula in the region if the Muslim Brotherhood prevails in Egypt.”

Israeli newspapers are depicting the crumbling of Mubarak’s rule as a regional “earthquake”’ marking the most significant Middle East watershed since the 1979 revolution against the Shah in Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referenced that event at a press conference Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying, “In a situation of chaos, an organized Islamic force can take over.”

Israelis seemed uncomfortable with the prospect of Mubarak’s departure. Many fear that Egypt’s experiment with democracy would bring to power Islamists that would ally with Hamas, and Hezbollah in Iran.

“I normally don’t agree with Netanyahu, but in this case he was right in what he told Angela Merkel,” said Dov Randal, a retired official from the Histadrut labor union. “If they have elections, the Muslim Brotherhood could get the majority in parliament. We saw on TV that they want to stop selling gas to Israel.”

There’s been a wide-ranging debate in Israel about whether Arab countries accustomed to dictators can transition into functioning democracies. Most Israelis are skeptical.

“It scares me what could happen,” said Augustine Fuestnes Kopel, a dog walker who emigrated from Argentina. “It reminds me of what happened in Lebanon. Hezbollah has almost taken over. There was a democratic process in Gaza, but look what happened?”

However, a minority of Israelis believe that Egypt can transition to democracy without social upheaval and without undermining its peace treaty with Jerusalem.

“If Egypt becomes a democracy, that’s better than any peace agreement,” said Gili, a 39-year-old software entrepreneur. “Democracies don’t make war against one another.”