Ensuring Jordan’s Position as Moderate Regional ‘Buffer’
The question that troubles many Jordanian nationalists is whether or not the emergence of a Palestinian state resulting from the Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization agreement will mean the beginning of the end of Hashemite rule in Jordan.
The strategic interests of the United States and Israel require that Jordan remain politically moderate. This can best be secured by continuous Hashemite rule. In addition Jordan should maintain the democratization process that is contributing to Jordan's political stability. The creation of a Palestinian state would not threaten Jordan, provided that the US and Israel build into the peace process a special role for Jordan as a geopolitical buffer. The Jordanians' concerns are rooted in their country's demographic composition, estimated to be 50 to 65 percent Palestinian and of Palestinian origin. From the Jordanian perspective, the Israeli-PLO agreement has rekindled Palestinian nationalism and removed any prospect of restoring Jordanian authority over the West Bank.
Palestinian nationalism has always contained a residue of hostility toward Jordan. The Palestinians resent Jordan's annexation of the West Bank in 1951, they blame King Hussein for losing it in the 1967 war with Israel, and they also hold him responsible for the 1970 civil war that left 10,000 Palestinians dead and three to four times as many expelled to Lebanon. Even though most Palestinians in Jordan are Jordanian citizens, very few participated in the 1989 parliamentary elections, leaving the political field wide-open to fundamentalist candidates. In the November 1993 parliamentary elections, the Palestinians by and large voted for candidates who supported the peace process, a factor that contributed significantly to the heavy losses sustained by fundamentalists. To what extent their sentiment could change in the future and how they might use their political power on both sides of the Jordan River are the core questions of the Jordanian dilemma. Soon after the "Gaza-Jericho first" agreement became known, King Hussein was quoted as having described it as "a danger to the national security of the Jordanian Kingdom." But officially the Jordanians expressed reserved satisfaction with the agreement. Should Jordan's stability be undermined by an extremist Palestinian takeover, not only Israel but also Saudi Arabia will lose a critical strategic buffer that separates the Saudi oil fields from the heavily populated northern belt that includes Iraq and Syria. A radical Jordan will be a natural partner to the Sunni Muslim-led Iraq. As the only homogeneous Arab country with a Sunni majority, Jordan shares long borders with Iraq and has the Red Sea port of Aqaba, which served as a vital outlet to the sea for Iraq during the Gulf war.
For Israel, to which national security is of paramount importance, and for the US, whose primary interest in the region remains the protection of oil resources, Jordan's future political stability is essential. A number of steps must be taken to ensure the continuity of the Hashemite rule and regional stability.
First, Jordan must become full partner in the Israeli-Palestinian economic development plans, which may include water-development projects, oil and other energy resources, tourism, transportation, and telecommunication. Moreover, the lack of natural resources and the absence of a large population base makes Jordan dependent on outside sources for revenue. Jordan suffers from an unemployment rate of 25 to 30 percent, and the per capita GNP is only $900, lower than that of either the West Bank or Gaza. Hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign investments and outright grants from West Europe, Gulf states, and the US will be needed for public projects and expansion of light industry. This aid should be coupled, as President Clinton has announced, with an effort to reduce or forgive some of Jordan's $6 billion foreign debt.
Second, the US and Israel should support the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state that will serve as a magnet and a source of inspiration for the majority of Palestinians, regardless of their place of residence. Meeting the aspirations of the Palestinians will reduce rather than increase the political pressure on Jordan. Moreover, it will stifle the opposition to the peace so long as Palestinian nationals enjoy freedom of movement and continue to develop social and economic ties with their counterparts across the Israeli and Jordanian borders. In this connection an equitable solution, which may entail compensation and resettlement of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan, must first be found.
Third, with the support of the US, regional security arrangements must be made between Israel, Jordan, the future Palestinian state, and Syria. These will be critical in fostering political stability. Israel and Jordan can cooperate in many areas concerning security, including sharing intelligence and surveillance without offending Arab sensibilities and without a formal military alliance.
Since 1967 Israel has indirectly safeguarded Jordan's security by making it known to Syria and Iraq that Israel will not tolerate any change in the political status quo of its neighbor to the east. Iraq, Iran, and other potential enemies will continue to think twice before they try to undermine the Hashemite rule, knowing that Israel or even the US will be drawn into the conflict to restore a friendly regime in Jordan. Given Jordan's Palestinian majority and the political pressure it can muster, neither peace, nor confederation with the Palestinian entity, nor consolidation of Hashemite rule on the East Bank will necessarily eliminate Jordan's political vulnerability. Israel and Jordan, with US support, must carefully construct a political, economic, and security structure that will enhance Jordan's role as a geopolitical buffer and as a major player in the development of a comprehensive peace.