It was almost 40 years ago that this city, like the rest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, fell out of Jordanian hands and into Israeli control in the course of the Six-Day War.
Call it retro geopolitics, or history repeating itself, but the idea of the Palestinian territories – at least the West Bank – rejoining the Hashemite Kingdom to form some kind of confederation seems to be gaining traction on both sides of the Jordan River.
The concept has been raised quietly before but was deemed taboo, in part because Palestinian leaders feared it could squelch their larger aspirations for an independent state.
But given the deteriorating security in the Palestinian territories amid an ongoing power struggle between Fatah and Hamas, some Palestinians are again looking east to Jordan – a country whose majority population is of Palestinian descent. Jordan's King Abdullah II – concerned about a full collapse of the Palestinian Authority as well as unilateral Israeli moves in the West Bank – is increasingly involved in bringing opinion-shapers and would-be peacemakers together to reconsider the idea.
When the king invited some 200 Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians to Aqaba earlier this month, the confederation idea was part a big part of the buzz, says Samih Shabib, a lecturer in political science at Bir Zeit University here.
"The official Jordanian position is that no Jordanian-Palestinian confederation will be established before there is an independent Palestinian state, but we all know there's more to it than that," says Dr. Shabib. "There seems to be an exceptional interest on the part of the king in internal Palestinian matters, and this has manifested itself in a huge effort in the last few months of bringing us together, and there are many meetings on this that are continuing."
Ten years ago, a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation as a part of the solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict was unacceptable. So Shabib was pleasantly surprised when he called the Palestinian Authority offices here about the Aqaba invitation to discuss peace plans for the region and found receptivity to the attendance of some 70 prominent Palestinian professors, business leaders, and members of the legislative council. Such openness to the issue, Shabib says, would never have occurred when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was alive.
"Palestinians are living through such a crisis that they have more confidence in the Jordanian regime than they have in the Palestinian Authority," he says. "We've been observing the progress on the Jordanian side, in economics, in international relations, in tourism, and therefore any Jordanian move to come closer to the Palestinians will find a positive response."
In Jordan and in the Palestinian territories, discussion about a confederation is now appearing in newspapers – one day suggesting that there is real support for it among senior officials, and the next quoting officials who dispel the idea. A poll released this week by Near East Counseling in Ramallah showed that 30 percent of Palestinians currently support the idea. Jordanian officials recently pointed inquiring reporters to a lengthy interview with King Abdullah in Egypt's Al Ahram newspaper. Talk of confederation was "premature," the king said, and that a "future official Jordanian-Palestinian relationship is something to be decided by both after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state."
But one Jordanian editor, who requested anonymity, says the issue is clearly on the table, even though it is politically sensitive. Some Palestinians worry that an internationally dictated solution could be imposed on them. Some Jordanians are concerned about the kingdom's stability, which after generations of being flooded with Palestinian refugees is now hosting up to a million Iraqi refugees. Moreover, many Jordanians point out that while Jordan has ancestral ties to the West Bank, a more distant and violent Gaza looks ungovernable.
"Jordan is interested in a confederation, but it was obvious from these meetings that the Jordanians have reservations" says Dr. Ali Jartawi, the minister of justice in the Palestinian Authority. "Jordan is a stable country, and the Palestinian areas are characterized by chaos," he says. "No country wants to bring that into its domestic context."
The idea of a Jordanian-Palestinian union sounds a lot like the geography before the 1967 Middle East War: the West Bank under Jordanian control and the Gaza Strip under Egyptian stewardship. Israeli officials have expressed interest in a confederation in the past, even before Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994.
But Jordan's friendly outlook toward Israel and the West does not fit the Hamas outlook. Dr. Jartawi, elected as an independent but considered close to the Hamas movement, says Hamas will oppose a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation because it could hinder Palestinian aspirations for independence. "The Palestinian people are interested in the Jordanian option at the moment," adds Jartawi. "But it's an indication of desperation. Everyone feels that his pride, his money, his property, his personal security are in jeopardy."
Most Palestinians say they see the benefits of a Jordanian role here as primarily economic. But one member of the Palestinian Legislative Council says that he also sees the Jordanian security forces having joint control over crossing areas with Israel, or possibly the Jordan Valley, which Israel is reluctant to relinquish control.