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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Jordan’s Relations with Israel: A Strategic Imperative with Political Constraints



In January, Jordanian-Israeli relations returned to the spotlight. This time, the news was positive: The Israeli Embassy in Amman returned to full activity following the resolution of a crisis that erupted last summer after a shooting incident involving an Israeli Embassy guard. The Jordan-Israel relationship is a critical component of regional stability; its origins extend back decades.


1948-1967: TURMOIL, THEN RESPITE


Even before Israel’s establishment in May 1948, King Abdullah I of Jordan (then called The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan) understood the benefits to his kingdom of cooperation with the emerging Jewish state. Accordingly, he entered into secret negotiations with the Jewish political leadership. But following the failure of talks, Abdullah’s Arab Legion joined the armies of four other Arab states (Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) in the invasion of what had been the British Mandate for Palestine.


Unlike the four other Arab armies, Abdullah’s Arab Legion avoided entering the area assigned to the Jewish state under the 1947 United Nations (U.N.) Partition Resolution. The Legion confined its military campaign to the area earmarked for the Arab state and to Jerusalem, which, under the U.N.’s plan, was to become an international city.


The 1949 Armistice Agreement, which reflected the positions on the ground of the two militaries at the end of the war, left the West Bank and East Jerusalem—including the Old City—under Jordanian control; a year later, Abdullah annexed these areas to Transjordan, which he renamed The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, more than doubling its population. With the addition of Palestinian refugees from what had become Israel, Jordan now became a Palestinian-majority country, with momentous repercussions to this day.


Turmoil reigned in Jordan during its early years. A Palestinian nationalist assassinated King Abdullah in 1951 after revelations of the content of secret peace talks with Israel. His eldest son and successor, King Talal, was forced to abdicate for medical reasons a year later. Talal’s younger brother Hussein was enthroned in 1953 upon reaching the age of 18. He remained the King of Jordan until his death in 1999.


Like his late father, Hussein understood the importance of positive relations with Israel. He too engaged in secret talks with the Israelis, and he too was the target of assassination plots and attempts; they all failed. From 1956 to 1967, Israel and Jordan faced a powerful common enemy: Under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, radical Arab nationalism swept the Arab world, targeting both the Jewish state and the pro-Western Hashemite Kingdom. In early 1958, when Syria joined Egypt under Nasser’s leadership to form the United Arab Republic (UAR), both Israel and Jordan felt deeply threatened. King Hussein soon discovered that Israel’s support was essential to his kingdom’s very survival.


After Hussein’s cousin and King of Iraq Faisal II was assassinated in a brutal, Nasser-inspired coup in July 1958, Jordan teetered on the brink of collapse. The United States and Britain sought to fly in troops to save the kingdom, but all of Jordan’s Arab neighbors denied the use of their airspace for the rescue operation. By contrast, Israel opened its airspace to enable the American and British overflights which helped save Jordan.


Following the collapse of the UAR in 1961 and Egypt’s losing military intervention in a disastrous civil war in Yemen from 1962 to 1967, Nasser’s role as leader of the seemingly unstoppable Arab national movement diminished. As a result, radical Arab nationalism lost much of its energy. Jordan and Israel enjoyed a relative respite.


1967: FATEFUL TURNING POINT


In 1967, King Hussein committed several strategic mistakes that ended up costing him a military defeat and the permanent loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.


On May 15, Nasser sent large military formations with much fanfare and dire threats against Israel into the Sinai Peninsula, which had been effectively demilitarized since 1956. To taunt Nasser, Hussein declared that the Egyptian leader was “hiding behind the skirts” of the U.N. forces stationed between Egypt and Israel. Nasser immediately ordered the removal of the U.N. troops, starting a chain reaction that led to the outbreak of the Six-Day War on June 5.


During the three weeks preceding the war, great excitement swept the Arab world— particularly among the Palestinians in Jordan. Nasser’s hitherto unchallenged and growing threats and provocations against Israel, along with the massing of hundreds of thousands of troops from six Arab countries close to Israel’s boundaries, made it appear to the Arabs that Israel was on the verge of defeat and destruction. Fearing for his political and physical survival, King Hussein signed a military pact with Egypt and placed his army under the command of an Egyptian general. At the outset of the Six-Day War on June 5, Israeli jets destroyed the Egyptian air force in a three-hour preemptive strike. Later that morning, Israel sent a message to King Hussein that it would avoid striking Jordan if its armed forces refrained from attacking Israel. However, the Egyptian general commanding the Jordanian army ordered an attack on Israel to relieve the Israeli pressure on his country.


Over the next three days, the Israeli army counterattacked and captured the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem. By the sixth day of the war, Israel had also taken the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. The joint Arab military defeat was complete. In effect, Nasser’s radical Arab nationalist agenda had demonstrated complete failure.


1967-1970: CONFLICT WITH THE PLO


Bitterly disappointed in the performance of the Arab armies, the Palestinians decided to take matters into their own hands. Yasser Arafat’s faction Fatah took over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), initiating a terror campaign against Israel while simultaneously encroaching on Jordan’s sovereignty. By 1970, the PLO controlled so much Jordanian territory that King Hussein was derisively called by his enemies “Mayor of Amman,” and groups within the PLO openly called for overthrowing the monarchy. The PLO’s growing dominance close to Israel’s long border with Jordan threatened the security of both countries.


Hussein’s patience came to an end in 1970, when a PLO-affiliated group hijacked three civilian airliners to Jordan, held their passengers hostage, and blew up the planes. Hussein ordered his army to attack, inflicting heavy casualties on the Palestinians. Large Syrian forces accompanied by hundreds of tanks then invaded Jordan in support of the PLO. At the request of the United States, Israel threatened the Syrian invaders by massing troops on the Golan and sending jet fighters to streak above the Syrian forces. The Syrians got the message. Their troops withdrew. The PLO moved most of its forces from Jordan to Lebanon.


1970-1988: JORDAN DISENGAGES FROM THE WEST BANK


Following the Six-Day War, King Hussein permitted Palestinian residents of the West Bank to retain Jordanian citizenship. He feared both the emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, or, alternatively, its annexation by Israel. Consecutive Israeli governments shared these concerns. Israel opposed the creation of a Palestinian state and refrained from annexing the West Bank. King Hussein maintained a clandestine dialogue with Israel. He refrained from a direct attack on Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973—instead sending a token auxiliary force to the Syrian front.


The process of Jordanian disengagement from the West Bank unofficially began as early as 1974, when Jordan responded to domestic and Arab pressures and accepted the Arab League’s decision to recognize the PLO as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” At least in theory, Hussein thus conceded that the Palestinian population of the West Bank was no longer represented by Jordan but by his nemesis, the PLO.


Nonetheless, Hussein continued to nurture the hope of eventual reunification of Jordan with the West Bank. As late as 1987, he concluded an agreement with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to lay the groundwork for Jordanian Israeli peace based on Jordan returning to parts of the West Bank. The agreement was canceled by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.


Ultimately, Hussein gave up on the West Bank. In 1988, he formally lifted Jordan’s legal and administrative ties to the area.


1988-1994: MOVING TOWARD PEACE WITH ISRAEL


Jordan’s formal disengagement from the West Bank helped lay the groundwork for JordanianIsraeli peace. King Hussein formally agreed to peace talks with Israel after the PLO recognized Israel and signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. In 1994, he concluded an agreement with Israel ending the formal state of war that had been in effect since 1948; three months later, he signed a peace treaty with Israel, complete with full diplomatic relations.


1994-2011: PEACE WITHOUT FULL NORMALIZATION


At the governmental level, the Jordan-Israel peace treaty led to extensive cooperation, especially on security and intelligence sharing. That cooperation continued after King Hussein’s death in 1999 and the ascension to the throne of his son, Abdullah II. Both governments realized that they had a vital stake in each other’s survival. Israeli officials recognized that Jordan provided a security buffer against threats from further east and that Jordan’s border with Iraq was, in effect, Israel’s eastern security border. The Jordanian government understood that Israel, strongly backed by the United States, would do what it could to help Jordan overcome threats to its existence.


Yet the Jordanian population, influenced by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinian nationalists, has generally been reluctant to take meaningful steps toward normalization with Israel. Any individual or company engaging in overt cooperation with Israel risked ostracism.


2011-PRESENT: THE “ARAB SPRING” INTENSIFIES PREVIOUS TRENDS


The “Arab Spring” and its aftermath has greatly exacerbated Jordan’s and Israel’s security problems. Jordan has been flooded with Syrian refugees and attacked by terrorists. It is gravely concerned by the fighting in neighboring Syria, the surge of refugees, and the presence of hostile forces close to its borders. Israel has similar concerns, particularly regarding Iran’s and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria. Most recently, Israel attacked Iranian facilities in Syria after an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace.


These common threats have elevated Jordanian Israeli security cooperation to ever higher levels. Jordanian military officers maintain constant close contact with their Israeli counterparts. In an unprecedented move, Jordanian fighter pilots in 2015 trained with their Israeli counterparts in a U.S.-hosted air force exercise.


Yet Jordan’s population continues to resist normalization with Israel. The cold peace between the Jordanian and Israeli publics has been further exacerbated by disputes over Israeli activities in Jerusalem’s holy places, where Jordan has a special status under the 1994 peace treaty and to which the Jordanian population is particularly sensitive. The most recent crisis in the relationship was sparked in July 2017 by an Israeli Embassy guard shooting a Jordanian attacker and an innocent bystander, which was widely viewed by the Jordanian public as murder. But even during that crisis, Jordan and Israel continued their close security cooperation. Jordanian and Israeli national interests are both served by the close coordination between them, and by their strong relationships with the United States. So is the American national interest.


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