Israeli proposal: Make Jordan the official Palestinian homeland

The controversial idea – though not new – could still undermine Netanyahu and erode Israel's relations with moderate Arab countries.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior members of his cabinet have pushed back hard against a renewed US demand to end settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories. Interior Minister Eli Yishai said Sunday that it amounted to "expulsion."

But 53 Israeli parliamentarians have moved to explore another kind of expulsion: Under a proposal to be reviewed this week, Jordan would become the official homeland for Palestinians now living in the West Bank.

Among the challenges facing the proposal is this: nobody asked Jordan if it would support such a plan.

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Not surprisingly, it doesn't.

Nearly half of the Knesset's 120 members moved last Wednesday to pass the "two states for two peoples on the two banks of the River Jordan" proposal on to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for further discussion.

Israeli officials say the Knesset's vote does not represent the government's position and is unlikely to become official policy, while analysts dismiss it as a bid from the far right to undermine Mr. Netanyahu. But for many in Jordan, the bill personifies concerns about Israel's new, conservative government and its lack of commitment to the peace process.

"It has done big damage," says Mamdouh Abbadi, a member of the Jordanian parliament who has been among the most vocal in calling for government action against the proposal. "Even if it's not passed, when 53 members of the parliament [Knesset] accept this law in the first reading, this is very important. We can't think it's just for show; it's the real thinking of the Israeli parliament and they represent the people."

Last week, Jordan's foreign minister summoned the Israeli ambassador to deliver an official letter rejecting the idea and calling for the Israelis to stop the bill last week. In parliament, a group of at least 36 lawmakers are working to encourage their government to take strong action against Israel.

Right-wing idea, but some support from left

The proposal, put on the Knesset's agenda by Aryeh Eldad of the National Union party, holds that Palestinians in the West Bank should either become residents of Israel or be offered Jordanian citizenship, since – in the view of its authors – it is already the de facto Palestinian state. Already, more than half of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, many the descendants of refugees who fled or were expelled when Israel declared independence in 1948.

The idea of Jordan as a Palestinian homeland has existed for years in Israel, but has never gained much support. This most recent bill, however, found a handful of supporters among Israel's liberal Labor Party.

Officials in Israel's foreign ministry tried to minimize the importance of the bill by pointing out that it was not supported by members of the ruling coalition. The National Union party holds only four seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

"This proposal doesn't represent the government," says Andy David, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "In a parliamentary system, there are many suggestions that turn into policy, and some of them don't. If it turns into policy, we'll discuss it then."

Main damage: peace process

Nawaf Tell, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, doubts that the bill will go much further. But he says it may damage the peace process that Jordan's King Abdullah II and other Arab leaders have been working to restart.

"What one wants from Israel today is basically to prove its peace credentials, especially given the current composition of Knesset and the trends that are becoming evident in Israeli public opinion," says Mr. Tell. "What these groups are doing ... is to maintain the status quo and to prevent the peace process from relaunching and achieving its desired results."

He adds that newly elected Netanyahu brings the baggage of his last term in the late 1990s, in which he alienated many Jordanians with his hard-line polices.

Khalil Atiyah, a member of Jordan's parliament, is among those unable to fully trust the new Israeli government. Aside from questioning Netanyahu's commitment to peace, he says that Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is "against all types of coexistence and peace process." So although he recognizes that it's unlikely Israel's bill about Jordan will come to fruition, he says that is not outside of the realm of possibility.

"It's not a remote idea that the Knesset might take foolish steps towards the peace process," he says.

Bid to undermine Netanyahu?

Most Israelis are quite dismissive of the proposal, however. Prof. Shmuel Sandler, a Bar-Ilan University professor who specializes in Israeli politics and the settlement movement, says the bill was more of a symbolic move meant to frustrate Netanyahu and outflank him on the right. Professor Sandler notes that the National Union didn't even make it into Netanyahu's government because the rightist prime minister chose to put the traditionally left-wing Labor party in his coalition over far-right parties that would rule out options for peacemaking.

"As for how serious this is, I don't think the Jordanians have to worry about it. Most Israelis in the establishment see Jordan as an important ally," he says. "The National Union doesn't carry much weight. But it can cause trouble to Netanyahu by making his effort to evacuate settlements more and more difficult."

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