Jordan and Israel Ties: A Need for Common Understanding Among Peoples

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent pledge to annex parts of the Jordan Valley saw the speaker of Jordan’s House of Representatives declare that this “would place the [25-year-old] peace treaty at stake.” While Amman and Jerusalem still have unprecedented stable military and intelligence ties at the highest levels, these comments highlight the treaty’s lack of popular support among everyday Jordanians as well as in parliament, which regularly casts symbolic votes calling for reviewing the accords. Understanding how the deal lost Jordanian public support shortly after its signing can help chart a path for strengthening bilateral economic, cultural, and political ties.

In 1994, Jordan’s King Hussein saw an opportunity to repair ties with Washington following his misguided refusal to join the American-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In pushing for a peace treaty with Israel, Jordan’s monarch used his personal involvement to achieve ratification and secured a treaty that promoted trade and scientific cooperation with Israel.

Unfortunately, as the 2000s approached, Israel-Jordan ties suffered three major blows. First, the king tried to stave off growing opposition to the treaty by cancelling planned political reforms. Second, by the late 1990s, Amman’s promise that American debt relief and aid would boost the local economy and create new jobs, failed to come through, which undermined one of the major selling points for negotiating the treaty in the first place. Finally, high-profile Israeli counterterrorism operations against Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists played poorly with the Jordanian street, which had considered Israel as an enemy for decades.

Eventually, Jordan’s economy experienced an upswing in the early 2000s, but this came too late to shift the public’s view that the treaty had not improved their lives.

Though unappreciated by the Jordanian public at the time, the 1997 Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) agreement with Israel and the United States was crucial to Amman’s subsequent economic success. QIZs incentivized Israeli and Jordanian cooperation on exporting goods to the U.S., which increased bilateral trade tenfold over the next decade.

However, beyond the initial economic benefits, QIZs did not substantially impact Jordan’s labor market because foreign workers constituted almost half of the system’s employees. QIZs were then undermined by the Jordan-US Free Trade Agreement (JUSFTA), which created a parallel export framework that didn’t require Israeli involvement. Through the 2000s, JUSTFA exports quickly outpaced those from the QIZs, thereby undercutting the latter’s mission to stimulate deeper Jordanian economic ties with Israel.

While bilateral economic ties could be better, Israel and Jordan have found other avenues for cooperation.

In 2016, Jordan inked a $10 billion 15-year gas deal with Israel – despite domestic backlash – to stabilize its energy supply mix and protect against potential energy disruptions. Another project is the Red Sea Dead Sea Canal, which will provide desalinated water to Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians, while also rehabilitating the Dead Sea. However, political tensions with Jordan and Israeli concerns about project costs postponed the start of the tender process until this year.

As the Middle East becomes more economically interconnected, Jordanians and Israelis should seek more opportunities to advance the peace treaty’s vision for them to “develop good neighborly relations…and [greater] economic cooperation.”

One way forward would be revising the QIZ system by expanding its focus to include high-tech products. If set up correctly, Israeli exports to Jordan could increase forty-fold to about $2 billion per year. Moreover, these goods could be re-exported through Jordan to Gulf markets, further benefiting both economies. With many Israeli firms currently operating abroad in cheap labor markets, shifting production to Jordan could create tens of thousands of jobs locally.

Although recent polling indicates that more Jordanians are open to closer ties with Israel on technology, counterterrorism, and containing Iran, unfortunately, a substantial segment still views Israel as the greatest threat to their nation’s stability. In this regard, deep-rooted mistrust at the ground level remains the largest impediment to enhanced cultural and business ties.

For too long, Israeli governments have believed that maintaining clandestine ties among the political elites of its key regional partners would suffice for stability and security, and that winning over the Arab street is either impossible or unnecessary. Though King Abdullah II shrewdly navigated Jordan through the tumultuous Arab Spring, Mubarak’s Egypt did not, and serious questions emerged about whether the new government in Cairo would maintain peace with Israel. Consequently, the continuance of any peace treaty should not be taken for granted.

Like shifting sands, governments can come and go, but widespread political views can remain entrenched for generations. Looking to the future, it would be in Jerusalem and Amman’s collective best interest if there was a common understanding among their people that this peace treaty can be vehicle for greater prosperity. Achieving that recognition, however, will require leadership on both sides making it a serious priority and taking bold steps to bring their nations together.

Ram Yavne is a brigadier general (res.) and former head of strategic planning in the Israel Defense Forces. He is a distinguished fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Harry Hoshovsky is a Policy Analyst at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy. Follow him on Twitter @H_Hoshovsky.

Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on September 16, 2019.