On May 29, 2019, the United States team tasked with forging peace in the Middle East met with Jordan’s monarch Abdullah II. Abdullah insisted that the so called “deal of the century” include an independent sovereign state of Palestine with “East Jerusalem” as its capital.
On its face, the king’s comment might seem a gesture of support for the Palestinian Authority. It was actually more than that. It was a statement made out of fear about losing his own monarchy.
To understand the current state of the Jordanian king, one must appreciate two factors: the history of Jordan regarding Palestine and the current situation in the country.
History of Jordan / Transjordan / Palestine
When the Ottoman Empire was facing defeat in World War I, the world powers sought to set up distinct new entities in the Middle East. The broad region now known as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Israel were to be administered by the United Kingdom and France for a period of years until each would become an established new state. The Mandate of Palestine (1922) fell under the UK and included the area now known as Jordan.
Due to effective lobbying of the British government, the Hashemite family was able to secure a monarchy on 77% of the Palestine Mandate in 1924, incorporating all of the area east of the Jordan River. Such division was hinted at in the Mandate (Article 25), but other key provisions of the Mandate were ignored by the Hashemite king, notably Article 15 which forbade the exclusion of any person based on religion (no Jews allowed as detailed below).
The Hashemite kingdom’s quest for more of Palestine would play out over the years 1948 to 1954.
When Israel declared itself an independent state in May 1948 as the British mandate ended, the Jordanians attacked the nascent Jewish State together with armies from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. At war’s end in 1949, the Jordanians took over Judaea and Samaria which would later become known as the “West Bank.” They ethnically cleansed all Jews from the region, including the eastern portion of Jerusalem, while tens of thousands of Arabs from Israel moved to the West Bank and Jordan. In 1950, Jordan officially annexed the West Bank in a move not recognized by any country other than the United Kingdom and Pakistan.
In an effort to further cement its ownership of “Greater Jordan,” the Hashemites gave all West Bank Arabs Jordanian citizenship, as well as those who moved to Jordan. The 1954 Jordanian Citizenship law specifically forbade Jews from obtaining citizenship (Article 3), a bold antisemitic initiative which received no condemnation at the United Nations.
In June 1967, Jordan attacked Israel again. However this time it lost the territory it had illegally annexed. Many of the Arabs who had moved to the West Bank in 1948-9 then moved to Jordan, while many others remained, holding onto their Jordanian citizenship even though they no longer lived in Jordanian-ruled land.
Many Arabs were furious with the failures of the leadership.
In 1964, several Arabs decided that they did want to be ruled by the Hashemites of Jordan nor the Jews of Israel and established the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to launch a “holy war” to free the land from “International Zionism and colonialism.” The 1967 loss of more land was an alarming setback in those goals.
In September 1970, the PLO fought to topple the Hashemite monarchy attempting to kill King Hussein, King Abdullah’s father, and take over Jordan. The Jordanian army routed the Palestinian fighters, killing over 3,000 of them. The remaining fighters were expelled to Lebanon, where they would later participate in the Lebanese Civil War and then wars against Israel.
The Jordanians would not be done with the Palestinian issue.
After Israel fought to expel the PLO terrorists from Lebanon in 1982, they moved on to Tunisia, but only for a few years. The Tunisians withdrew the passports issued to several members of the PLO leadership and cancelled the residency permits of many others in 1986. The group began to spread throughout Algeria, Yemen, Sudan and Syria, establishing terrorist training camps around the region.
And they would soon find themselves back next door to Jordan.
In 1988, Yasser Arafat nominally recognized Israel’s right to exist, as the Palestinians declared an independent state, a move not recognized by most of the world. The Jordanians revoked the Jordanian citizenship of the Palestinians at this time, leaving them theoretically with Palestinian citizenship, but effectively no citizenship since no countries recognized Palestine. The Jordanians would also give up all claims to the West Bank (indicating that they clearly sought to recapture that land before such time).
A few years later in 1991, 400,000 Arabs of Palestinian descent were expelled from Kuwait, due to the PLO’s siding with Iraq in its war with Kuwait. The vast majority of these Arabs would settle in Jordan, inflating the already significant number of Stateless Arabs from Palestine (SAPs) in the country.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Arab “intifada” against Israeli Jews would rage from 1987 until 1993. It was in that year that Yasser Arafat, the head of the PLO, moved from Tunisia to Gaza, and the current Jordanian King Abdullah would take a Palestinian bride, Rania.
The Oslo I Accords of September 1993 set in motion a plan for a “two-state solution,” one for Arabs (Palestine) and one for Jews (Israel), helping pave the way for the Jordanians to make peace with Israel in the following year, in October 1994.
The tug-of-war between the Palestinians-and-Jordanians, the Palestinians-and-Israel, and Israel-and-Jordan was seemingly coming to a peaceful conclusion.
It was not to be.
Current Situation of the Hashemite Kingdom.
The Oslo I Accords would be followed by the more comprehensive Oslo II Accords in 1995 which set in motion a plan to arrive at a conclusive deal within five years, by September 2000. Those five intermediate years were marked by constant Arab terrorist attacks against Israel, but the two parties still tried to advance to a peace agreement.
The Jordanian King Hussein who forged the peace agreement with Israel died in February 1999, and was succeeded by his son King Abdullah II. Abdullah kept the peace treaty with Israel in place, a move unpopular with many Jordanians during the Second Intifada which began in September 2000 when the Oslo II Accords failed to bring about a Palestinian State. Abdullah’s police and military fought with members of the Parliament and countered riots in the street which were committed to the Palestinian cause.
The monarchy was once again caught in the three-way fight between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians.
And then 9/11 happened.
King Abdullah strongly condemned the attacks against America, and pushed forward a much more authoritarian shutdown of the public protest in support of Palestinians. However, the daily bloodshed of the Second Intifada made the protests from the streets where most people were SAPs and had relatives in the West Bank hard to contain. Queen Rania herself led some of the protests.
But King Abdullah saw that America was coming to wage war again in Iraq after the attacks of 9/11. He ruled over a people who overwhelmingly supported Iraq just a decade earlier, and who cheered when Iraq fired scud missiles into Israel which wasn’t even part of the battle How could Abdullah manage such a population when he relied on America for economic aid and military protection?
As described in an article by The Middle East Policy Council, King Abdullah instituted a “Jordan First” policy, to manage the internal threat.
“Through its emphasis on domestic priorities, Jordan First offered an innovative political strategy that mixed elections with repression in an effort to ensure a loyalist parliament that would allow the Hashemite regime to continue its support of American policies in an effort to secure the economic benefits essential to the regime’s long-term survival…. In brief, these policies are the maintenance of normal ties with Israel, alignment with U.S. policies toward the Middle East, and active support for the American war on terror.”
Abdullah prioritized Israel-Jordan over Jordan-Palestine while he ignored Palestine-Israel. And he would continue to do so throughout the Second Intifada, even while occasionally berating the Israeli government, in an effort to convince the Arab street that he was not a puppet of the US administration or a closet Zionist.
And then the “Arab Spring” happened in December 2010, devolving most notably into the Syrian Civil War in March 2011.
The bloodshed and anarchy of a fellow Arab monarch slaughtering his own citizens at his borders was difficult for Abdullah to watch. So his country of 9.7 million people welcomed almost a million Syrian refugees, almost 10 percent of its population. This was on top of the over 2.3 million people in Jordan who were registered as Palestinian refugees.
In total, King Abdullah rules over a population in which one-third of the people don’t identify with the country. The loyalties, allegiances and aspirations of the “Palestinian”- Jordanians and Syrian refugees lie elsewhere, in neighboring lands. The country is like an airport waiting area in which the flights keep on getting delayed and the people become more and more restless.
Which brings us back to King Abdullah’s comments today.
The Tottering Hashemite Crown.
Jordan’s unemployment rate now stands at 18.7%, roughly the same high mark for the past six quarters. By way of comparison, Israel’s unemployment rate is at a remarkable low of 3.8%, a level which keeps getting lower. Jordan may have survived the Arab Spring violence that engulfed Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but it is limping along.
The “Arab Spring” may not have liberated the Arab world, but it made the populations question the legitimacy of their governments. This is much more true in the motley group of “Jordanians” who have nothing to do with the Hashemite who sits on the throne, a man who cannot deliver jobs.
It is therefore impossible for Abdullah to take on another 2.9 million Arabs living in the West Bank in a possible confederation scenario. Such a move would bring the Palestinians to roughly 42% of the Jordanian population, and together with the Syrians, a majority. And this majority has no loyalty for a small tribe which took control of the area almost 100 years ago. In Abduallah’s calculation, the Palestinians must gain their own state, or he risks losing his monarchy in Jordan.
The Jordanian king often uses passionate and flowery speech to convince his audience of his good nature. But as a creature of the volatile Middle East, he is simply a crafty survivor, fighting to retain his family dynasty among a restless and poor population which doesn’t recognize him.