The longstanding peace accord between Israel and Jordan ensures stability in the region, but King Abdullah II's domestic troubles could change everything.
AMMAN — Israel's government has been rarely so surprised by a close ally. But on the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Jordan's King Abdullah II reversed one of the Nobel Peace Prize winner's most important achievements.
On Twitter, the monarch announced that he was annulling an attachment to the peace treaty that his father had signed with Rabin in 1994. The treaty concerns two enclaves that Jordan leased to Israel for agricultural use for 25 years. They were considered a prime example of Israeli-Arab cooperation. According to the agreement, Israelis were given free access to areas that were Jewish privately-owned and farmed before Israel's foundation in 1948.
But now the king has chosen not to renew the lease for the two enclaves, called Bakura and Ghumar in Arabic. This decision means dozens of farmers stand to lose their livelihoods. According to Israeli media reports, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would negotiate with Abdullah II for a further extension of the lease. He also stressed the importance of Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan as "anchors of regional stability." The Jordanian king's decision raises concerns about the permanence of peace between two of the West's most important allies in the Middle East.
Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas before a meeting at the Royal Palace — Photo: Khalil Mazraawi
As of now, relations between Israel and Jordan are good. Only a few days ago, the new Jordanian ambassador was accredited in Jerusalem, shortly before a new Israeli ambassador came to Amman. Both states signed an energy contract: Starting in 2020, Jordan will be heated with Israeli natural gas.
Jordan's water industry is already dependent on Israel. The special joint industrial zones built under the terms of the peace treaty enable duty-free export to the U.S., providing work for 36,000 Jordanians. Haifa is one of the most important trading centers of the Jordanian trade. Both countries' militaries have been cooperating closely for years.
But this is not the full story. There have been tensions between Amman and Jerusalem for a long time. Above all, Amman is angered by Israel's settlement policy and the lack of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. It could also have been more flexible, unnamed Amman officials said in Arab newspapers, but the "stubbornness of the Israeli government" has prevented an agreement.
This leaves nothing for schools or roads.
Others, however, are convinced that King Abdullah's true motivations lie elsewhere, closer to home. "Jordan has had an economic depression since 2010," says former Minister of State for Economic Affairs Jussef Mansur. Economic growth has dwindled to 2.2%, as the Jordanian population has also stagnated.
Meanwhile, 1.2 million Syrian refugees have come to the country and represent a huge financial burden. Unemployment is around 20%, and the state has a debt of $37 billion, equivalent to 95% of GDP. According to a USAID study, Jordan is already receiving more development aid per capita than almost any other state in the world, but as a Western ally in the fight against radical Islamism, and a refugee host for people from all over the region, it plays a strategically important role for stability.
But the inefficiency of the Jordanian economy squanders aid: "Around 57% of the workforce are civil servants. They and their pensions consume almost the entire state budget. That leaves nothing for schools or roads," says Mansur.
The crisis intensified earlier this year as the king sought to enforce tax reform and austerity measures to obtain loans from the World Bank. In the summer he replaced the prime minister after massive protests, but his successor must now force a tax reform on the population. The popularity of Abdullah has reached a historic low: Only 30% of the population believe in the government.
There are protests across the country, in which the royal family is increasingly criticized: "The royal national anthem is slavery," read a protester banner recently. The demonstrators are coming from the very same social classes on which Abdullah's rule has so far rested: retired military, economic elites, influential tribes.
The royal house has never been challenged in this way.
More than 300 Jordanians have recently petitioned to restrict royal power and establish a constitutional monarchy. "We demand that the king comply with the constitution, which states that all power emanates from the people," said former General Suleiman al-Maitah, one of the opposition leaders.
"The royal house has never been questioned and challenged in this way," adds Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan.
Nationalist and Islamic forces form an important part of the opposition. In addition to democratization, they are demanding a second major change: the cancellation of the peace treaty with Israel. The Bar Association reminded the king in a communiqué that the law prohibits Jews from acquiring land in the kingdom. Any lease to the Jewish state of Israel is therefore illegal.
Parliament has repeatedly called for the resolution of the peace agreement with Israel, while members of parliament praise Palestinian assassins as "martyrs'. Eighty MPs wrote an open letter to the king urging him not to renew the lease with Israel and organizing protests and online campaigns.
Now the besieged king is finally giving in into the pressure: "He threw a bone to his opponents. He has picked a fight with Israel, so they would give in on other issues such as tax reform," says former Israeli ambassador Eran.
For Abdullah, this decision is ultimately is less about a power struggle with Israel than his weakness in Jordan.