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PLO-Jordanian Relations

Palestinians have been a complicating factor in the Jordanian political process since the annexation of the West Bank in 1950. Transjordanians tended to fear that the numerically preponderant Palestinians could emerge as a dominant force if competitive politics were permitted to resume. For years many Palestinians openly opposed Hussein's monarchical absolutism and demanded equality and proportional participation in the political process. Their frustrations under Hussein's rule, at least through the 1960s and early 1970s, provided a fertile ground for their empathy and support for the PLO. Since 1971, when the PLO guerrilla forces were crushed and driven out of Jordan, Palestinians generally have been politically dormant. Given the authorities' effective discouragement of political expression critical of the regime, it was difficult in 1989 to ascertain what the political aspirations or preferences of the Palestinians in Jordan might be.

The Palestinian equation became further complicated after October 1974 as external pressures were brought to bear on Jordan. The catalyst was the unanimous decision of the Arab states meeting in Rabat to recognize the PLO as the sole authorized representative of the Palestinian people. Strongly prodded by Egypt, Syria, and other Arab states, Hussein was obliged to assent to the Rabat decision although he still claimed the West Bank as Jordanian territory until 1988. This development has portended uncertain implications for Jordan's domestic politics and its relationship with the West Bank.

Following the Rabat Summit, Hussein and PLO leader Yasir Arafat met to reconcile relations, strained since the 1970-71 civil war. Their discussions resulted in the decision in early 1975 for Jordan and the PLO to cease mutual recriminations. Hussein rejected, however, a PLO demand that it be permitted to reestablish its military and political presence in the East Bank. After 1974 there was a noticeable resurgence of Palestinian empathy for and identification with the PLO in many parts of the world. This sentiment was nowhere more evident than in the West Bank. There, in the municipal elections that Israel permitted to be held in April 1976, candidates supporting the PLO defeated most of the candidates identified with Hussein. The outcome was a reversal of the municipal elections held in 1972, when pro-Hussein candidates handily won over pro-PLO candidates.

The process of reconciliation also was complicated by the linkage of the Jordanian-PLO equation to the broader configuration of Middle East problems. In March 1977, Hussein and Arafat met in Cairo as part of the Egyptian-Syrian efforts to prepare for an upcoming Geneva peace conference on the Middle East. The two leaders addressed, inter alia, the question of future relations between Jordan and a proposed Palestinian state on the West Bank. Their discussions focused on whether the PLO should be represented as an independent delegation at the conference in Geneva or as part of Jordan's delegation. The latter course was preferred by Hussein.

The Hussein-Arafat contact became more frequent in the wake of Egyptian president Anwar as Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 and his signing of the United States-mediated Camp David Accords in 1978 and the Treaty of Peace Between Egypt and Israel in 1979. Nevertheless, Arafat and other PLO leaders were suspicious of Hussein's ultimate intentions vis--vis the Camp David Accords. Although Jordan had no part in the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, it was directly linked to the process for settling the future of the West Bank. The first agreement, called "A Framework for Peace in the Middle East," stipulated that Egypt and Israel would negotiate with Jordan and Palestinian representatives for a transitional self-governing authority to administer the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a noncontiguous Palestinian enclave on the Mediterranean Sea that also was occupied by Israel. Jordan declared it was neither legally nor morally obligated to this agreement and refused to participate in the negotiations, which consequently made no progress. Hussein's decision to maintain a dialogue with the United States, however, fueled the fears of some Palestinians that the monarch tacitly supported the Camp David Accords and was seeking ways to preclude the PLO from gaining control of the West Bank.

Post-Israeli Invasion of Lebanon (1982)

The expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon in the wake of Israel's 1982 invasion of that country brought the contradictory Jordanian and PLO objectives into open conflict. Initially, relations improved because Hussein agreed to accept a small contingent of expelled fighters and to permit the reopening of PLO political offices for the first time since the 1970-71 civil war. In several face-to-face meetings held between September 1982 and April 1983, Hussein and Arafat discussed Jordan's role in future negotiations over the fate of the West Bank. Because neither the United States nor Israel was willing to talk with the PLO at this time, Hussein tried to obtain Arafat's endorsement for Jordan to serve as spokesman for the Palestinians. More extreme Palestinian guerrilla leaders--often called "rejectionists" because they rejected any compromises that would circumscribe their goal of an independent Palestinian state that included all of pre-1948 Palestine-- distrusted Hussein and would not be assuaged by Arafat's reassurances. Without a broad-based consensus within the PLO, Arafat apparently felt he could not agree to a common negotiating strategy with Hussein. Consequently, Hussein broke off the talks in April 1983; for the remainder of the year, Jordan's relations with the PLO were strained.

Violent factional feuding engulfed the PLO beginning in May 1983, inducing the moderate elements (who generally coalesced around Arafat) to revive contacts with Hussein. By this time, Jordan had decided to assert its influence in the West Bank more aggressively, albeit within the limits tolerated by the Israeli occupation authorities. The National Assembly, dissolved following the Rabat decision in 1974, was recalled in January 1984 and deputies were appointed to fill vacant West Bank seats in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, Hussein seemed to welcome the rapprochement with the moderate faction of the PLO and gave his blessing to the holding of a Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting in Amman in November 1984. The PNC meeting was an historic event that was broadcast on Jordanian television and picked up by viewers in the West Bank. The meeting strengthened Arafat's authority as leader of the PLO and enabled him to negotiate with Hussein without fear of the inevitable recriminations from extremist factions who had boycotted the Amman meeting.

Hussein and Arafat continued to cooperate after the PNC meeting, both leaders speaking of the need for Jordan and a Palestinian state to maintain a special relationship. In February 1985, they announced a joint Jordanian-Palestinian agreement on a peace framework. This agreement called for the convening of an international peace conference whose participants would include the five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and all parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although the PLO would represent Palestinians, its PLO delegates would not attend the conference separately but rather as part of a joint Jordanian- Palestinian contingent. The agreement stipulated that the Palestinian people would have the right to exercise national self- determination within the context of a proposed confederated state of Jordanians and Palestinians.

Following his agreement with Arafat, Hussein pursued two policies simultaneously. While trying to serve as a spokesman for the Palestinians in talks with the United States, and eventually even with Israeli politicians, Hussein also tried to persuade Arafat to make a public declaration of PLO support for UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, both of which implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist. Arafat, who still felt he had to be wary of the influence of the more extreme factions in the PLO, was unwilling to be pushed as far toward moderation as Hussein had hoped. The extremist guerrilla groups criticized Arafat for the agreement, claiming that it would deny Palestinians the right to establish a sovereign state within the pre-1948 boundaries of Palestine. Some of the extremists demonstrated their potential for undermining any possible compromise solutions by carrying out sensational terrorist acts in September and October of 1985. The international response to these incidents, especially the Israeli aerial bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunisia, increased Arafat's reluctance to make the political concessions that Hussein believed were required to obtain United States support for an international conference.

Hussein's disappointment in Arafat contributed to an erosion of their political relationship. In February 1986, Hussein announced that he was terminating the year-old Jordan-PLO agreement. Tensions with the PLO were exacerbated in May by the student demonstrations at Yarmuk University in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid. In July Hussein ordered the offices of Arafat's Al Fatah organization closed following criticisms of the harsh manner in which Jordanian security forces had put down the Yarmuk demonstrations.

During 1986 both Hussein and Arafat intensified their competition for influence in the West Bank. The king appeared to have the upper hand in this contest because Jordan's banking system controlled the disbursement of pan-Arab funds earmarked for West Bank (and also Gaza Strip) development projects. However, the Palestinian uprising, the intifadah, which began in December 1987, exposed the fragility of Hussein's influence in the occupied territories. It became obvious during the first half of 1988 that, compared with the PLO, pro-Hashimite sympathizers had little support. Hussein decided that political circumstances required a bold move that would preserve Jordan's interests. Thus, in July he renounced all claims to sovereignty over the West Bank. By doing so, Hussein apparently hoped to enhance the Jordanian position in a post-intifadah era. If the PLO succeeded in consolidating its influence in the occupied territories and in winning international support for its claim to rule the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, then Hussein's abdication of responsibility would stand Jordan in good stead. It would enable Jordan to forge political and economic links with a new state, which, because of its small area and lack of natural resources, would be dependent in various ways on its only neighbor to the east. If the PLO failed to deliver on the political aspirations being expressed by the intifadah, then Hussein would be ready to offer Jordan's services as negotiator in terminating the Israeli occupation.

The PLO accepted Hussein's challenge. Arafat met with the king during the late summer and early fall to discuss strategy. Among the practical measures agreed to was a scheme for the PLO to assume responsibility for payment of the salaries of West Bank and Gaza Strip municipal employees through Jordanian financial institutions. Subsequently, at an historic PNC meeting in Algiers in November 1988 at which all major factions were represented, the PNC declared the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to be the independent state of Palestine. The PNC also renounced the use of terrorism, accepted UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 (both of which recognized the existence of Israel), and declared its willingness to negotiate the end of the occupation. Jordan was one of the first nations to recognize the new state and announced its readiness to discuss how the two countries could maintain a special relationship.


From a tactical and ideological standpoint, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was the principal counterpoint to Al Fatah. George Habash and Ahmad Jibril founded the PFLP after the June 1967 War. The PFLP was a consciously Marxist-Leninist organization. It defined as enemies not just Israel and Zionism, but also imperialism and the Arab regimes that cooperated with the United States, the country it proclaimed to be the main imperialist power. It called such Arab regimes reactionary, advocated their overthrow, and the establishment of progressive, democratic, and secular governments in all Arab states, including Palestine. Habash and the other PFLP leaders soon were divided, however, on the issue of whether armed struggle or political considerations should take precedence in achieving their objectives. Jibril broke with Habash in 1968 and formed a rival organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP-GC), which placed primary emphasis on armed struggle. The following year Nayif Hawatmah, who was an East Bank Jordanian, also split from the PFLP and organized the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Hawatmah's DFLP tended to stress exploring political options before resorting to armed struggle.

The PFLP, PFLP-GC, and DFLP held attitudes toward reactionary Arab regimes that precluded cooperation with Hussein, whose government they regarded as a prime candidate for revolutionary overthrow. Their openly professed ideology and maintenance of armed bases within Jordan's Palestinian refugee camps were major factors in precipitating the 1970 conflict between the guerrillas and the Jordanian army. After the guerrillas were suppressed, Habash, Hawatmah, and Jibril remained hostile and unforgiving toward Hussein. When Arafat began the process of reconciliation with Hussein in 1973, they opposed any PLO ties or even dialogue with Jordan and publicly called for Hussein's overthrow. Habash and Jibril were the principal organizers in 1974 of the rejectionist front of guerrilla groups, which refused to accept the PLO decision to establish a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The rejectionists were those groups that rejected any negotiations or compromises with Israel and insisted on using armed struggle to liberate all of historic Palestine. In 1983 Jibril supported Abu Musa and the Al Fatah dissidents, joining with them to form the National Alliance, which opposed any diplomatic initiatives or cooperation with Hussein.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:06:09 ZULU