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Israel-Palestine: The return of the Jordanian option

Shmuel Rosner Ha’Aretz

There are increasing signs, slowly but unmistakably, that the Jordanian option for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is once more assuming a central position on the agenda. Not necessarily along its original “Jordan is Palestine” formula, but in a more sophisticated composition: Jordanian assistance to the Palestinians, the possibility of a confederation. This is no longer the preserve of people on the extreme right or of neo-conservatives, who have never supported the idea of creating a Palestinian state. These ideas are also being considered by more mainstream groups. Even more surprising, there are many senior Fatah members, exasperated with the likelihood that the Oslo process will yet yield results, who are also looking for a way out of the impasse.

A Palestinian source close to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas told Haaretz that he “was not frightened” by these ideas. However, he also clarified that “this is a sensitive matter. Of course, it is difficult to address it publicly.” In any case, at this stage, talks about the Jordanian option are held in unofficial channels and in secret.

The Bush administration is committed to an agenda of a two state solution, which now focuses on bolstering Abbas and his regime in the West Bank. Israeli sources have said that the Jordanian question has not been raised in official talks held with American officials during recent months. However, some senior administration officials have begun to ask: “What would happen if the current strategy proves to be unproductive?”

Meanwhile, a caustic response to the idea of such a solution came from King Abdullah of Jordan who said Sunday during an interview that “we reject the formula of confederation and federation and we believe that proposing this issue at this specific point in time is a conspiracy against both Palestine and Jordan.” The King added that he was “fed up talking about this issue.”

A diplomat who is familiar with Jordan said there is no reason to wish for a confederation at present. This may change, he added, if a chaotic situation in the West Bank begins to threaten stability. The diplomat said that Abdullah’s reaction is an attempt to block an idea that is rapidly gaining supporters.

The head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Dr. Robert Satloff, wrote last week that it is possible that the “pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian political horizon may in fact run counter to the interests and preferences of both sides. Instead, investing in an Arab-Palestinian political horizon – including early negotiations on the outline of an eventual Jordanian-Palestinian confederation – may be more realistic, valuable and effective.”

In a few weeks the Hudson Institute, a neo-conservative think tank, will host a delegation of former senior Jordanian and Palestinian officials for an exchange on the relations between the PA and the Hashemite Kingdom. Last year, another right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, hosted a similar dialogue, in which Jordan’s former prime minister, Abdul Salam al-Majali, assessed that the idea of establishing a “federation or a confederation” with Jordan was likely to be supported by “a large number” of Palestinians.

A survey conducted recently by Dr. Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research suggests that 42 percent of Palestinians would support a confederation, while 52 percent oppose it.

Sources in the Israeli government, which is working together with the American administration to strengthen Abbas’ hold on the West Bank, are also not raising the Jordanian option in public – in great part because they would like to avoid angering President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. However, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited Washington 10 days ago, is openly discussing the need to deploy “Jordanian forces” in the West Bank to assist in restoring order there. In Israel, the Jordanian option is not the turf solely of the right-wing. President-elect Shimon Peres told the Winograd Committee during his testimony on the Second Lebanon War that “we need to look for a new structure with the Palestinians. I have come back to the conclusion that… we must bring in the Jordanians. We cannot make peace only with the Palestinians.”

A U.S. administration official, who refused to address the Jordanian option specifically, said that “the administration is committed to the agenda set by the president.” He added that, “I do not think there will be any change on this matter. But this can happen in the administration of another president.”

A foreign policy adviser to one of the candidates for the presidency in 2008 told Haaretz Sunday that “strengthening Abbas seems to be the right thing to do, but we all recognize that the chances it will succeed are low.” Under such circumstances it is important to seek alternatives, he said, but “it is dangerous [because] such a search weakens Abbas.”

The Republican presidential candidate leading the polls, Rudolph Giuliani of New York, told a Jewish audience in Washington last week that “we should try to help Abbas” but stressed that “we should make sure that we?re getting help from Jordan and other places, so the burden doesn’t fall on Israel or on the United States.”

This is the essence of the search for “new ideas.” In Washington, like in Israel and also among the Palestinians, the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip has registered another record in the lack of confidence in the PA’s ability to restore stability on its own and to serve as a partner in dialogue.

The head of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, Martin Indyk, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote last week that nothing would come of a “renewed U.S. effort unless an antidote was found to the fundamental weakness of the Palestinian institutions.” But experts focusing on this issue now say that Palestinian institutions may not be enough, and a future partner may also need to have Jordanian reliability.

Other scholars suggest even more provocative ideas, such as that of Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In a recent article and during a conversation with Haaretz, Luttwak urged decision makers to “leave the Palestinians alone.” He believes that there will be no solution to the crisis until the Palestinians understand that they need to adopt “realistic solutions” and cease toying with “dreams.” It is best, he says, to let the Palestinians “become accustomed to the fact that if they do not help themselves, they will get nothing.”

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