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Israel's Internal Politics Raise Tensions with Jordan

By Jacob Wirtschafter January 22, 2020

Jordan is increasingly on edge as Israeli politicians work to outbid each other over who will keep more of the territories captured from the Arab states in the 1967 war.

"Israeli governments that spoke of the possibility of returning this area were making a grave strategic and security mistake," said opposition leader Benny Gantz who toured Jordan Valley border settlements on Tuesday, "We see this strip of land as an inseparable part of the State of Israel."

The valley comprises 20% of the West Bank's land and extends 300 kilometers (185 miles) from the Galilee in the north down to the Dead Sea.

Prime Minister Netanyahu stated his intention to apply sovereignty to the disputed territory before the last Israeli elections in September.

Now courting votes from the valley's s 11,000 Jewish settlers, Gantz's Blue and White Party aims to improve on its 33-32 performance over Netanyahu's Likud as Israel heads to its third round of voting in 11 months.
"This leads the vast majority of Jordanians to perceive Israel as one right-wing bloc with no difference between Likud and Blue and White," said Hassan Barari, an international relations professor at the University of Jordan. "Benny Gantz's alliance is led by ex-generals like Moshe Ya'alon. He's even more right-wing than Netanyahu."

On Monday, Ya'alon, a former Israeli army chief of staff, insisted both he and Gantz are more serious about annexing the Jordan Valley than their opponent.

"He [Netanyahu] has done nothing to invest in the area. But when I served as defense minister, I actively assisted Jordan Valley [Jewish] communities with water and electricity issues," Ya'alon told The Jerusalem Post.

Widespread resentment, royal restraint

The spectacle of Israeli politicians vying over who is more certain to take more Arab territories nurtures a growing frustration among Jordanians.

"This is an Israel that we don't want to see," said Barari, "It's an expansionist Israel denying the Palestinians rights to self-determination. It doesn't believe in the two-state solution, which is a key to Jordan's national security."

During Israel's last election campaign, Jordan considered downgrading its diplomatic presence in Tel Aviv after Prime Minister Netanyahu's promises to annex the Jordan Valley.

At the time, sources close to King Abdullah II said the 57-year-old monarch concluded that Netanyahu was "just playing to his base."

The assessment shifted in November as the two countries sullenly marked the 25th anniversary of their peace treaty.

Abdullah declined to renew an annex to the 1994 agreement that had granted Israel the use of two small agricultural areas along the border, and the Israelis were miffed.

Then Netanyahu told the Knesset that Israeli security helped the king and Egypt's President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi "prevent the takeover of their territories" by armed Islamist groups.

The remarks were hurtful to Amman's security establishment, which has kept both ISIS and Iranian backed terror organizations from staging any operations on Jordanian territory.

In response, Abdullah launched an international messaging campaign. With speeches and TV interviews in New York, Brussels, and Paris, he warned of the risks posed by the annexationist drift in Israeli politics and the re-emergence of ISIS close to Jordanian borders in western Iraq.

"I hope that whatever happens in Israel over the next two or three months, we can get back to talking to each other on simple issues that we haven't been able to talk about for the past two years," Abdullah told attendees at a November 27 New York event where he was honored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Israel's future is being part of the Middle East, [but] unless we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, we'll never have the full integration that all of us deserve."

Meanwhile, the Jordanian street erupted in frustration over continued regular economic ties with the Jewish state even as the king maintained a facade of mild disappointment with the surge Jordan Valley sovereignty declarations from the politicians across the river.

Annexation anxiety led thousands to take the streets of Amman, and even quiet provincial cities from Irbid to Aqaba held demonstrations against a $10 billion, 15-year gas deal with Israel.

Jordan's government-owned national electricity company and Texas USA based Noble Energy signed contracts in 2016 to import gas from Israel's East Mediterranean Leviathan field.

The arrangement may make economic sense for Jordan, which is paying $.30 less per heat unit than the Israeli consumer – but with a population that is as much as fifty percent of Palestinian origin – the deal is perceived as a sell-out to a nation that has dispossessed them.

"It's not Israeli gas, it's actually Palestinian gas that has been stolen by Israel," said Lujain al-Fayez, a protester against the deal.

"If the occupation keeps moving forward and Israel annexes more land, we wonder, how much to trust their commitment to the signed peace treaty with Jordan," said 28-year-old human rights organizer Dima Hashim.

Just ten days after the Israeli gas started flowing through the pipeline, Jordan's parliament unanimously passed a bill to cancel the contract.

"The talk of halting Israeli gas supplies to the country is a sham," said Amman economist Marwan Kardoosh. "Neither the government or the parliament makes these kinds of decisions. They are made within the confines of the Royal Court, in close coordination with the U.S. Embassy and the American administration in Washington."

Uncertainty over Washington's Mideast plan

President Trump's Mideast peace team led by senior adviser Jared Kushner is expected to arrive in Israel by Thursday to explore releasing the U.S. plan for the region in consultation with both Netanyahu and Gantz.

It's unknown if the three-person group will be stopping in Amman to meet with King Abdullah.

"Jordan today fears that Israel is not serious about the two-state solution," said Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Amman and a former foreign minister. "They seem to have designs that will solve the Palestinian question at our expense."

"Meanwhile, all the indications from the U.S. actions around the yet to be published Deal of the Century suggest that they are fully on board with the Israel position," Muasher said. "The United States might not want to hurt Jordan intentionally, but we have become collateral damage."

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