On Jordan's East Bank, Palestinians grasp at old idea for statehood

Palestinian-Jordanian confederation has long been a non-starter, not least because Israeli rightists espoused the idea that 'Jordan is Palestine.' But a lack of faith in the peace process and their leadership has spurred many on the East Bank to revive the idea.

Raad Adayleh/AP
A man walks through the Palestinian refugee camp of Jerash in northern Jordan, Feb. 8, 2017. The plight of Palestinians uprooted by Israeli-Arab wars now spans five generations.

Omar Draz’s winding path to Jordan was like that taken by many Palestinians.

He was born two years after the nascent Israeli army pushed his family from the Palestinian village of Tall al-Turmus in the 1948 war.

He spent his youth in Gaza before war once again uprooted him and drove him and his brothers in 1968 to Jordan, where he built a successful career, opening several furniture workshops and showrooms.

Today, Tall al-Turmus is long gone. In its place stands the Jewish village of Timorim in what is now central Israel. Yet Mr. Draz, who retains the wrought iron key to his ancestral home, has never given up hope of returning home to a Palestinian state, a dream he has passed on to his six children and 20 grandchildren.

For decades he has watched from the East Bank of the Jordan River as hopes for an independent Palestine have ebbed and flowed. Negotiators have come and gone, but for years, the peace process has gone nowhere.

Now he sees a different path to statehood.

“Jordan and Palestine should enter a confederation,” Draz said recently at a gathering of two dozen Palestinian elders, tribal leaders, and businessmen at the Amman Wihdat refugee camp services committee. His proposal was hardly new, yet his statement was met with murmurs of agreement.

“Abbas and the Authority do not represent us and can no longer protect our rights – someone else has to,” he added, referring to President Mahmoud Abbas, the long-serving Palestinian Authority (PA) leader whose popularity has plummeted and whose elected mandate expired eight years ago.

Confederation, a union of sovereign states, has long been a polarizing fringe idea that was – and mostly still is – publicly dismissed outright by Palestinian and Jordanian officials alike. Palestinians were suspicious it would make a Palestinian entity subservient to Jordan, while Jordanians feared Israelis would use it as an excuse to drive thousands of Palestinians from Israeli territory into Jordan, upsetting the kingdom’s delicate balance of Palestinians and Jordanian tribes. Joining Palestine with Jordan was a political non-starter.

So why is there a groundswell of new support for a rejected idea?

Analysts say it is a product of the despair East Bank Palestinians feel at not having a political voice as they see their dream of independence slip away. They feel estranged from the West Bank-based Palestinian political institutions, have little faith in either the PLO or Hamas, and so are turning to the government of their host country.

“People are so desperate to end the occupation they are saying that if a confederation with Jordan can save us from the evils of occupation, then we are willing to accept it,” says Daoud Kuttab, a veteran Palestinian journalist who spends part of his time in Jordan as director of the Community Media Network.

“The fact you are hearing this more now is a reflection of people’s desperation rather than desire.”

A recurring idea

Jordanian-Palestinian relations have at times been fraught. Following the 1967 Middle East war and Jordan’s loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinian aspirations for statehood were the source of serious tensions with the kingdom, including open conflict between Palestinian militias and the Jordanian Army in September 1970. And Jordan only surrendered its right to represent and administer the West Bank in 1988 after pressure from the Arab League.

The confederation idea resurfaces every few years. It was first proposed by King Hussein, the late father of Jordan’s current monarch, King Abdullah, then by pragmatic Palestinian thinkers, and, more recently, right-wingers in Israel.

But it is the support of this latter group – Israeli politicians trying to declare Jordan as an alternative “Palestine” – that has made the discussion of confederation especially taboo in Palestinian and Jordanian official circles.

Yet as the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute appears more distant, the idea of a confederation is appealing to the grassroots as a way to break the diplomatic impasse.

The proposal was raised publicly in mid-2016, when former Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam Majali called for a confederation while on a visit to the northern West Bank city of Nablus – a call echoed by Ghassan Shaaka, a former Nablus mayor and former member of the PLO Executive Committee. The declaration prompted speculation and debate in Palestinian and Jordanian press for months.

Revival of the longshot idea is being driven by more than just frustration with a peace process that has produced only limited autonomy on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It is also a result of the growing dissatisfaction with the aging Abbas, Yasser Arafat’s successor as chairman of the PLO, who is regarded as ineffectual and corrupt.

After several failed attempts at peace talks and amid the sustained expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Palestinians in Jordan say they now fear that Abbas and a weak PA leadership may negotiate away or lose their rights, whether it be the right of return to towns and villages within the 1967 borders, or compensation for those who cannot.

They point to Abdullah’s standing in Washington – and his reported influence over President Trump’s warning against Israeli settlement expansion and delaying of the previously imminent embassy move to Jerusalem – and say that entering an arrangement with Jordan would provide Palestinians with greater leverage and protection on the international stage.

“We need a leader that can influence the Americans and hold a strong stance with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu – Abbas and the Authority are not those leaders,” says Youssef Ziyadeh, a head of the Ziyadeh clan,which was dispersed from villages within pre-1967 Israel. “King Abdullah could be that leader.”

Disconnect with leadership

The PA has a large presence in Amman. It provides occasional food aid and financial assistance to vulnerable refugees, and Abbas frequently uses Jordan as a meeting point with international delegations.

But Palestinians in Jordan see PA officials, many of whom own sprawling villas in upscale West Amman, as far from the average person, paying lip-service to the more than 2 million refugees in the country while enriching themselves. There is no direct channel of communication between East Bank Palestinians and the PA, they say.

Officially, the Jordanian government, the PA, and state-influenced news outlets have shot down any talk of a confederation.

“Any talk about a confederation is unacceptable and undermines the effort to solidify the independence of a Palestinian state,” a Jordanian government source says, declaring that “the focus now should be on establishing a fully independent sovereign Palestinian state.”

Over the past year, however, East and West Bank community leaders have discussed the practicalities of confederation with Jordanian officials in meetings initiated by the Palestinians themselves, Palestinian and Jordanian officials say.

In their wake, Amman maintains that a Palestinian state must be established before any confederation could proceed, official sources say. Yet the proposal is one that is constantly considered by Jordan’s strategic planners.  

Meanwhile, the confederation idea is also gaining some supporters in the West Bank.

A survey taken by Nablus-based Najah University in October 2016 saw a solid plurality of West Bank residents in support of a confederation with Jordan, with 42.3 percent for such a union compared with 39 percent against.

And Palestinians’ faith that the two-state solution for the conflict with Israel is viable is at an all-time low. In a December 2016 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey, 31 percent of respondents said a two-state solution is viable, compared with 65 percent who say it is not.

Not a federation

Proponents of the idea stress that the arrangement would be a confederation between two independent states, not a federation of two entities such as Jordan’s previous annexation of the West Bank between 1948 and 1967.

Under the confederation proposal, power would not be shared by Palestine and Jordan. Rather, each state would have complete authority over its own internal and international affairs. The two states would enter a joint security agreement, which would likely see Jordanians taking part in helping secure the Palestinian state’s border.

A confederation could also mean big dollars for both sides, supporters say, by greatly easing the flow of goods across the Jordan River and allowing a Palestinian state to have direct and quick access to international markets.

Currently, direct trade between the West Bank and Jordan hovers around $160 million per year. Trade between Israel and the West Bank, meanwhile, totals over $3 billion.

“A confederation would be the best thing that could happen to the Palestinian and Jordanian economies,” says Abdelhakim al-Sanari, a Palestinian refugee from Hebron who says his garments business in Amman cannot meet the demand in Jenin, in the West Bank, because of Israeli restrictions and customs.

Lingering opposition

Large segments of Jordan’s population, meanwhile, remain fiercely opposed to confederation, mainly Jordanians of East Bank origin who fear a migration of Palestinians from the West Bank, as well as local Palestinians who fear their rights as refugees would be lost.

“If a confederation is handled wrong, Jordan would not see any stability on the West Bank or even at home in the East Bank,” says Oraib Rintawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.

“For many, it is a non-starter – and that just won’t change.”

Other say it’s a moot point, for now.

“The problem is not whether the Palestinian territories need to be an independent Palestinian state or confederated with Jordan, the question is whether Israel is willing to end its control over these territories,” says Ghassan Khatib, political science professor at Bir Zeit University and former Palestinian cabinet member.

“If there is an end to the occupation, there is always the possibility of a confederation,” he said. “You cannot take this decision while you are under occupation.”

Nevertheless, several East Bank tribal leaders and hardline Jordanian nationalists, who have resisted even giving Palestinians in Jordan full political rights, say they now accept that a confederation between two separate states may be “inevitable.” 

“At the end of the day, if you want a security settlement and if you want a functioning economy in the West Bank, you will have to link it some way to Jordan,” says Abdul Hadi Majali, former Jordanian ambassador to the US, nationalist MP, and a leader of the influential Majali tribe.

“There is a Jordanian national identity and a Palestinian national identity, but that doesn’t mean that the two states cannot reach an agreement that respects both.”

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