In Trump peace conference, a perilous balancing act for Jordan

Why We Wrote This

The Trump administration is depending on Saudi Arabia to deliver Arab support for the first phase of its Middle East peace plan. But Jordan and Egypt offer a glimpse of how hard that might be.

Chris Sétian/Jordanian Royal Court/AP
Presidential advisers Jared Kushner (center l.) and Jason Greenblatt (third from l.) meet with Jordan's King Abdullah II (center r.) and his advisers, in Amman, Jordan, May 29. Jordan stands by a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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When the White House said that Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco had agreed to take part in the June 25 economic conference in Bahrain – the first leg of its Middle East peace plan – it unleashed a media firestorm. Arab and Palestinian media expressed “shock and anger,” and the three countries downplayed their involvement.

Rather than advocates for the administration’s undisclosed “ultimate deal,” Jordan and Egypt are reluctant guests at the conference. They must walk a political tightrope to appease Washington while not angering Palestinian allies and their own publics who worry the Trump plan will be the death knell of Palestinian statehood.

For their part, Palestinians are also applying pressure to Arab states to boycott the economic workshop, which many Arabs fear will offer investment projects to Palestinians in return for recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the West Bank – a “selling off” of Palestinian statehood.

Jordan, torn between its allies abroad and stability at home, is trying to forge a third way: using the gathering to push Palestinian statehood back on the agenda. “Jordan is searching for the least provocative position it can take; they are basically walking between raindrops,” says Daoud Kuttab, a Jordan-based Palestinian analyst.

As the Trump administration prepares for an economic conference next week in Bahrain, the first leg of its Middle East peace plan, it is exerting immense pressure on two of America’s closest Arab allies to take part in a process seen as toxic by their own publics.

Rather than advocates for the administration’s undisclosed “ultimate deal,” Jordan and Egypt are reluctant guests at the conference. They must walk a political tightrope to appease Washington while not angering Palestinian allies and their own people who fear the Trump plan will be the death-knell of Palestinian statehood.

For their part, Palestinians are also applying pressure to Arab states to boycott the economic workshop, which many Arabs fear will offer investment projects to Palestinians in return for recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the West Bank – a “selling off” of Palestinian statehood.

So Jordan, torn between its allies abroad and stability at home, is trying to forge a third way: using the gathering to push Palestinian statehood back on the agenda.

Jordan would be the “eyes and ears of the Palestinians” and use the workshop as a platform to promote the two-state solution, Jordanian officials say.  

“In the event we decide to participate, we will attend to express our stance with confidence,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said in a local television interview Thursday. “We will listen to what is proposed, and if it is in line with our positions, we will acknowledge it. If not, we will reject it.”

‘Shock and anger’

When the White House said last week that Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco had agreed to take part in the June 25 economic conference in Bahrain – it unleashed a media firestorm.

Arab and Palestinian media expressed “shock and anger,” as the three countries sought to downplay their involvement.

Foreign Minister Safadi stressed that Jordan “has not officially declared its position,” Morocco’s prime minister denied any knowledge, and Egypt was notably silent.

With Lebanon and Iraq boycotting, Palestinian Authority spokesman Ibrahim Melhem warned that Jordan and Egypt’s participation “would carry wrong messages about the unity of the Arab position.”

Yet in private the Palestinian leadership acknowledges the “immense pressure” Arab states are facing and are urging participants to instead drag their feet over U.S. plans, which is precisely what some officials privately say they will do.

Saudi Arabia as enforcer

When crafting the “deal of the century,” the Trump administration viewed the support of Jordan and Egypt – which border either side of Israel and the Palestinian territories and are the only two Arab states with peace treaties with Israel – as automatic.

Jordan and Egypt are the second and third biggest recipients of U.S. aid in the world after Israel; Jordan received $1.52 billion in financial and military assistance in 2018, while Egypt received $1.3 billion.

With Jordan facing record 19% unemployment and Egypt battling inflation, and both weathering debt crises, the administration believed neither were in a position to say no to Washington.

So rather than involve Jordan and Egypt, President Donald Trump and his son-in-law and envoy Jared Kushner have overridden Amman and Cairo and arranged the peace plan directly with Saudi Arabia, as the political force they thought could deliver much of the Arab world.

To Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the Gulf, the Palestinian issue increasingly has been seen as a stumbling block to forging a closer alliance with Israel in order to counter perceived Iranian aggression in the region.

Jordan was already the object of substantial Saudi financial pressure. Aid was temporarily cut off over Amman’s criticism of the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and the Trump administration’s heavy-handed tactics with the Palestinians. How quickly the aid is being restored appears now to be linked to Jordan’s support for the Bahrain conference.

“Jordan is in a very difficult position as its major allies are exerting pressure on the country; but Jordan has always turned its weaknesses into strengths by maintaining the widest number of allies,” says Daoud Kuttab, a Jordan-based Palestinian analyst and journalist.

“Jordan is searching for the least provocative position it can take; they are basically walking between raindrops.”

Domestic pressures

Roughly half of Jordan’s citizens, some 3 million people, are of Palestinian origin. The vast majority of them – some 2.2 million – are card-carrying U.N.-recognized refugees, including descendants of those who fled or were pushed into the kingdom during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts.

The other 3 million-plus Jordanians hail from indigenous East Bank tribes who make up the army, the security services, and much of the political elite in the kingdom.

Both sides fear the stripping of the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their ancestral lands, as well as the dismantling of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides services to millions of Palestinians in the region, including in Jordan.

More concerning are rumored attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without a Palestinian state, leaving Jordan to administer the West Bank or grant residents Jordanian citizenship – the so-called “alternative homeland” project promoted by the Israeli far-right.

Jordanian tribes are concerned the move would make them a minority in their own country and threaten their political and economic status. Palestinian-Jordanians believe it would sever ties to their homeland.

Feeding into these fears is the Trump administration’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, refusal to endorse a two-state solution, recognition of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, and most recently, the U.S. ambassador to Israel’s comments accepting Israeli annexation of some West Bank territory. 

“For Jordan, it is really a situation of ‘to be or not to be,’” says Hassan Barari, a Jordanian analyst and expert in Arab-Israeli relations. “If you go along with this plan and kill off the two-state solution, Jordan as you know it will cease to exist.”

It is difficult to overstate the Jordanian public’s rejection of the Trump administration’s approach to peace.

When Mr. Kushner met with King Abdullah in Amman in late May to urge Jordan to attend the Bahrain conference, multiple protests erupted outside the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Protests at the heavily guarded fortress-like embassy are rare.

Jordan’s Press Association, a syndicate representing the country’s newspapers, websites, and television networks, announced its boycott of the Bahrain conference and threatened to expel members who attend or report on the event.

Even in Egypt, where strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has jailed, silenced, or exiled most of his opponents and critics, fears remain of the emotive resonance of the Palestinian cause among Egyptians and the potential backlash if Cairo appears to have “sold out” Palestinian statehood.

Participate to advocate

While Egypt has remained largely quiet on the U.S. plan, Jordan has left itself with less political room to navigate.

In multiple speeches over the past three months, Jordan’s King Abdullah has given rare public rebukes to the U.S. in which he rejected “pressures from outside,” the surrendering of Jerusalem, and the idea of an alternative Palestinian homeland.

Torn between its allies abroad and stability at home, Jordan is crafting a finely-tuned position: participate to advocate.

Jordan’s participation in Bahrain would not mean Amman endorses any Trump plan, officials argue. On the contrary, they say Jordan would go to Bahrain to fight to prevent an “economic proposal replacing a lasting political solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But it remains to be seen if the deft diplomacy would sway Jordanians.

“You have to prioritize the argument you will take to your people,” says Mr. Barari, the Jordanian analyst. “Because at the end of the day, you can’t put all your eggs in the baskets of the Americans, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.”

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