Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to believe Israel has a new partner in the settlement enterprise: Jordan. Speaking at an event commemorating a half-century of Israeli building in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, the prime minister spelled out his vision: “On both sides of the Jordan [River], I see green. We’re settling and planting; they’re building and planting. This is precisely the place where we can expand regional cooperation.” Netanyahu was unambiguous in his hopes for joint Jordanian-Israeli activity in the entirety of the Jordan Valley, including the Israeli-occupied sections on the West Bank: “I want to say something more about our relationship with our neighbor. All of this space should be a lever for regional cooperation.” Such suggestions are not just absurd – they are also dangerous.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan carries great strategic importance in Israeli foreign policy. Jordan offers a strategic partner and a stable frontier on its longest border. The breakdown of neighboring Syria and Iraq and the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group has only compounded this significance. Even as IS contracts, Jordan remains a reliable and constant presence in a fast-changing region where it is one of only two Arab states maintaining official relations with Israel. The country’s authoritarian monarchy has mostly been able to absorb the rancor of a broadly anti-Israel public (Jordan is home to a major anti-normalization movement), but it is still sensitive to the population’s strongly held convictions. It is for this reason that fantastic Israeli political designs related to Jordan are so risky, both for the Jewish state and the Hashemite Kingdom.
The point has been made ad nauseum, but no country, let alone an Arab state, recognizes the validity of Israeli settlements in the West Bank outside negotiated land swaps under a final status agreement with the Palestinians. The intimation that Jordan, with as many as three million Palestinian residents, would see Israeli settlements as a starting point for regional cooperation belongs to the realm of fiction. The problem is that this is not an isolated ambition in the Israeli prime minister’s mind. Rather, it reflects Netanyahu’s (and many Israelis’) conviction that Israel can achieve long-term strategic progress with the Arab world while stalling, or even backtracking, on the Palestinian question.
It is an appealing concept for many Israelis, buoyed by occasional tactical achievements with one Arab government or another. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Amman would ever ground collaboration with Israel in Jordan Valley settlements. On the contrary, even the most mundane Jordanian-Israeli joint projects have weathered intense domestic political backlash in recent years. Last fall, thousands of Jordanians protested against a bilateral natural gas deal. Jordan is not a democracy, and even parliamentary objections to the accord failed to sink it. Ultimately, pragmatic considerations guided the Jordanian government to hold fast to the agreement.
Still, the demonstrations revealed the fragility of Jordan’s public relationship with Israel. In order to obscure ties to the Jewish state, the gas was ultimately imported from Israel’s Leviathan Field with the American firm NBL: Eastern Mediterranean Marketing acting as a middleman. When Jordan and Israel reached the agreement, Amman badly needed the energy resources, as Jordan’s gas imports from Egypt (its primary supplier, representing 80 percent of the market in Jordan) were threatened by IS sabotage.
If anti-Israel sentiment made it difficult for Jordan’s government to market the supply of a day-to-day necessity (natural gas) to its population, it is unreasonable to expect Amman would get away with cooperating on Israeli settlements. Of course, the Jordanians have no desire to do so, but if Netanyahu’s suggestion translates into policy on the Israeli end, it could inflame the already hostile attitude most Jordanians hold toward Israel. As it stands, the public relationship is still recovering from an incident this past summer in which a Jordanian worker attacked an Israeli embassy guard in Amman, who in turn shot and killed the assailant and one other. That event sparked a diplomatic standoff, while Jordanian security forces outside the Israeli embassy held back protesters calling for the 1994 peace treaty to be terminated.
It bears repeating that Jordan is a major advocate of the two-state solution and proponent of the Arab Peace Initiative. Netanyahu’s October speech is an affront to a government which has proven to be a reliable partner in terms of practical (if quiet) security and economic relations. Israel is not by itself responsible for the Jordanian anti-normalization campaign. However, provocative moves like implicitly calling the Hashemite Kingdom a partner in the settlement enterprise may carry negative repercussions. Israel is a strategic asset for Amman, but the growing anti-normalization movement could become a liability. If Netanyahu wants to preserve Israel’s partnership with Jordan, he should recognize that, in the near term, the only regional cooperation on the occupied territories will be third-party mediation aimed at a two-state solution.