Calls are growing in Jordan for a boycott of a US-led economic workshop in Bahrain — billed by the Trump administration as a not-to-be missed opportunity for deal-making in the Palestinian territories, but feared by Amman as a gateway toward full normalization of Israeli occupation.
On Friday, what appeared to be hundreds of demonstrators marched through the center of the capital Amman, holding banners calling for the “Fall of the Deal of the Century” and the Bahrain workshop, scheduled for June 25-26.
Jordan, a staunch US ally and one of only two Arab states with a peace treaty with Israel, is home to millions of Palestinian refugees believed to outnumber the native population. The monarchy and parties across the political spectrum have a longstanding position that a two-state solution is not only necessary for the return of this refugee population, but critical for the security and integrity of Jordan.
The so-called “Deal of the Century” pledged by Donald Trump has yet to see the light of day. But for many in Jordan, the plan is already clear.
A growing fear
Successive moves by the administration — from the crowning of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 to the presence of US envoy David Friedman at unveiling of a Trump Heights sign on the occupied Golan — have convinced the Jordanians that all of this is leading, logically to Israeli annexation of the neighboring West Bank, and an unfolding security nightmare.
“What people see, even the king, is an administration that is not only pro-Israel but pro-annexation of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, and which doesn’t consider these territories as occupied,” said Lamees Andoni, a political columnist and analyst in Jordan.
US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt recently backed comments made by the American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who said that Israel had the right to annex parts of the West Bank.
“If there’s no Palestinian state, then who runs the West Bank? It’s either an annexation, judging by what Greenblatt is saying, or they keep the villages and towns surrounded by settlements annexed by Israel and then they need someone to control the people,” she told Asia Times.
What Amman fears the most, Andoni explains, is that King Abdullah will be called upon to deploy his US-trained security personnel to maintain security in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Already, Trump son-in-law and vizier Jared Kushner has said he does not believe the Palestinians are capable of governing themselves, suggesting it will be another authority in charge.
“Imagine if Jordanian security is asked to control the Palestinians,” said Andoni. “It would be a bloodbath.”
The columnist is up-front about her own position: she has been urging the government not to attend the gathering in Manama.
“People are afraid Jordan will go there and find itself in a trap.”
On Wednesday, the former Jordanian prime minister Ahmad Obeidat held a forum with other political leaders in the country calling for a boycott of the Bahrain event.
The head of the Jordanian teachers association, Ahmed al-Hijaya, was quoted by Gaza News 48 saying it was “Not a conference, but a conspiracy taking place in Bahrain.”
Jordan’s top diplomat has meanwhile been seeking a middle ground, saying that if the kingdom were to attend, it would voice its opposition clearly when needed, and emphasize its position.
Jordan, unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia or Iraq, has no oil wealth or natural resources to speak of, and is thus is in many ways at the mercy of its allies as it seeks to balance its political positions with economic pressures; in this case to attend a conference where it stands to gain little and lose much.
Jordan in March managed to secure more then one billion dollars in World Bank loans, after months of wrangling. The funds are seen by some as a means to secure a measure of economic independence for the cash-strapped nation. But not to ignore the combined pressures of Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Jared Kushner and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, both in their thirties, came to see eye-to-eye from early on in the Trump presidency, namely on the Israel-Palestine issue. Unlike past Saudi royals, who have seen their custodianship of the holiest sites in Islam as conferring a responsibility toward the Palestinian people and Jerusalem, the prince known as MBS appears to have zero sympathies and would rather focus on making his kingdom the new Dubai.
The prince’s perceived capability as a regional mover and shaker has been stymied, however, by one foreign policy blunder after another, culminating in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which put US arms sales to the kingdom under almost unprecedented scrutiny in the American Senate.
As it stands, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will be attending the Manama conference in an official capacity – the latter having boycotted it over what it says is the US administration’s lost credibility as an evenhanded broker.
Costs of attendance
Jordan is under huge pressure to participate in the US-led peacemaking game, as it always has been, but may have as many pressures not to.
The lack of participation of the Palestinians is a major factor. And the monarchy has its own red lines.
For Jordan, there are two deal breaker issues, says Ahmad Awad, director of the Phoenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies in Amman.
“First, there is the two-state solution — this is a red line for the society, for the political parties, and for the government,” Awad told Asia Times.
“The other red line is the custodianship of the holy sites, both Islamic and Christian, in Jerusalem. There cannot be a change here,” he added.
While the House of Saud relies on its custodianship of Mecca and Medina, the holiest sites in Islam, for legitimacy, Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy sees its custodianship of Al Aqsa Mosque and other holy sites of Jerusalem as crucial to its reputation and authority in the region.
Awad notes that while Jordan is facing massive pressure from Saudi Arabia to participate in Bahrain, that participation could also be lethal.
The king has traveled twice to Washington during Trump’s term in office, seeking clarity and trying to drive home the Jordanian position.
“He came back very angry. That was when he said you cannot force us to accept the annexation of Jerusalem. There is not a substitute homeland for the Palestinians in Jordan. He said ‘No, no, no’ publicly,” said Andoni, stressing that this defiance of the US was unprecedented.
“There are many calls [for a boycott]. And we’re waiting for the palace’s decision. The palace is not enthusiastic, but I think it’s weighing the costs of not going,” she said.
Should the king reject the US plan, he will face issues with Trump, who is seeking reelection in 2020. The alternative — losing legitimacy and facing a new demographic crisis — could be even costlier.