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The Trump administration’s new idea for Israeli-Palestinian peace is actually an old, failed idea

- September 12, 2018
A Palestinian woman waits for transportation near the settlement of Mehola in the Jordan Valley, a strip of West Bank land along the border with Jordan, in 2014. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Recent reports suggest that the Trump administration is considering proposing a confederation between Jordan and the West Bank as part of its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. The idea would create some form of a Palestinian statelet, in parts of the West Bank and perhaps the Gaza Strip, in confederation with Jordan. Jordanian officials politely but firmly made clear that the idea is a nonstarter.

There is a history to Jordanian-Palestinian confederation proposals, and critically important political issues have always stood in the way. What adviser Jared Kushner and the Trump White House are pitching as a new and innovative solution is actually a decades-old idea that gets periodically revived and continually shot down. Palestinians have consistently insisted instead on an independent state. Jordanians, for their part, view confederation not as an opportunity but as a potentially existential threat to the identity and vital interests of Jordan.

The long history of confederation proposals

Jordanian policymakers should perhaps be given credit for patience as this process unfolds, because it has to seem like deja vu of the worst sort. The confederation proposal is one that Jordan has clearly and consistently rejected for years.

Jordan did propose confederation decades ago, in 1972, when King Hussein proposed a United Arab Kingdom that would amount to a confederation of the Palestinian territories with Jordan. But that proposal was roundly rejected by and condemned from almost all quarters, including by the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Arab League. Jordan quickly abandoned the proposal, instead endorsing the 1974 Arab summit resolution at Rabat naming the PLO the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Since then, when the confederation idea has reemerged, it has never been from the Jordanian side.

In 1988, with the Palestinian intifada raging, Hussein took a dramatic turn in the opposite direction by severing Jordanian administrative ties to the West Bank. In many ways, we are still in the continuing aftermath of that moment, since the king’s move made clear that his nation lay entirely east of the Jordan River, even as the kingdom endorsed Palestinian claims to an independent Palestinian state west of the river — in particular in the West Bank and Gaza. Since the 1988 disengagement, Jordan’s policy has remained consistent.

In 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, normalizing relations between the two states and, in its view, permanently ending the “Jordan Option.” The kingdom supports a two-state solution, including a fully independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. That shows no sign of changing.

Confederation and Jordan’s identity politics

The confederation idea has for decades been a core one on the right of Israeli politics, including the ruling Likud party, often overlapping with claims from this quarter that “Jordan is Palestine.” The idea of a “Jordan option” has long fascinated many in right-wing circles in Israel and has for just as long horrified Jordanians across the ideological spectrum.

Jordan’s own domestic political debates over identity issues have at times returned to the question of a dreaded “alternative homeland” in which Israel secures all of historical Palestine while expelling the Palestinian population to a Jordan that they see as simply Eastern Palestine. But Jordan is not Palestine. Jordanians agree on this, and it is not up to Israelis, or Americans for that matter, to insist otherwise.

Jordan has its own struggles and debates over national identity issues, to be sure, but so does the United States and every other country. Jordan’s population does include people whose roots are from both east and west of the Jordan River, but it also includes many others: Circassians, Chechens, Iraqi refugees from the several gulf wars, and now at least 650,000 Syrian refugees and perhaps 600,000 more Syrians not registered as refugees.

Jordanians reject the confederation idea because they see it as a barely disguised attempt to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at Jordanian expense. Confederation, many argue, would compromise Jordanian sovereignty while also denying Palestinian independence and statehood. The purported Trump grand bargain or deal of the century, they fear, is not intended as a step toward a Palestinian state but rather an end game in itself, as a solution that harms Jordanians and Palestinians alike. For that reason, Jordanian officials have been quick to try to nip this revived old proposal in the bud, declaring it simply “not on the table.” Jordan’s King Abdullah II described it as a “red line” that should not be crossed. “Every year we hear a renewed talk of confederation,” he said while meeting with military veterans. “Confederation with whom? This is a red line for Jordan.”

Trump’s terrible timing

The confederation idea has been floated at a particularly difficult time for the Hashemite kingdom, requiring Jordan to be very careful in its approach to the United States, especially under the Trump administration. Many Jordanian officials worry about the emergence of a de facto U.S.-Israeli-Saudi axis that may leave both Jordanians and Palestinians in the cold. But Jordan has been a longtime ally of the United States, maintains a peace treaty with Israel and has tried to maintain a close regional alliance with Saudi Arabia. It has no intention of being sidelined. Yet the kingdom is also aid-dependent, so it is not in a position to risk alienating regional or global allied powers, especially those on which it depends for aid.

The kingdom is used to playing a key geopolitical role in the region. During the Cold War, Jordan marketed itself as a bulwark against communism. Today it serves as a key political and military ally to the United States, other Western countries and even NATO — including in the campaign against the Islamic State militant group. Jordan has traded its geopolitical importance for foreign aid, trade, investment and military support for decades, and the current regime has no intention of being marginalized now.

In my recent book, “Jordan and the Arab Uprisings,” I show how Jordan faces daunting challenges politically, economically and in terms of intense regional insecurity, and yet has persevered. But Jordan’s economy remains in severe crisis, with the national debt as high as 96 percent of GDP. Protests erupted across the country in June, with thousands protesting price hikes, new taxes and corruption.

Even under a new prime minister, Omar Razzaz — a highly regarded advocate of reform in the kingdom — the challenges remain. And yet, Jordan’s biggest ally, the United States, took this moment to cut funding to UNRWA, the main source of aid for millions of Palestinian refugees, including perhaps 2 million in Jordan. Jordan has been dealing with an overload of crises, including economic austerity, the refugee crisis and the war in neighboring Syria. And yet its main ally seems to be wittingly or unwittingly adding to the pile.

Today Jordan is fighting to restore aid or secure alternative aid sources for UNRWA, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. But as it does so, and as it tries gently but firmly to educate its allies in Washington about misguided peace initiatives, the kingdom remains so deeply linked to the United States — especially economically and militarily — that it has to tread warily so as not to agitate an especially unpredictable White House.

For the Hashemite kingdom, the stakes couldn’t be higher. And Jordan will, therefore, attempt to weather this storm as it has so many others. But despite decades of a close U.S.-Jordanian alliance, the current U.S. administration is making these efforts very difficult indeed.

Curtis Ryan is a professor of political science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. His latest book is “Jordan and the Arab Uprisings: Regime Survival and Politics Beyond the State.”