16 September 2008
Jordan's Outreach to Hamas: The Politics of Distress
Until recently, Jordan was the only Arab country that had boycotted the fundamentalist Hamas movement. However, in 2007 Jordanian intelligence held a series of meetings with Hamas leaders to end hostile relations and start afresh.
Jordan's greatest fear is that it be considered the "alternative homeland" for the Palestinians. That is why all political formulas that Jordan is ready to consider are based on the "two-state solution" - a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and a Jordanian state in the East Bank. Jordan would only consider confederation arrangements with the Palestinians after a Palestinian state is declared west of the Jordan River.
Israel's regional policies have thrown Jordan off balance. The tahdiya (calm) agreement with Hamas caused great embarrassment moderate Arab countries and exploded the policy of isolating Hamas. In addition, in its prisoner deal with Hizbullah, Israel agreed to hand over to Hizbullah the bodies of Jordanians. If Israel, for pragmatic reasons, finds it appropriate to engage with Hamas, why shouldn't Jordan do the same?
Traditionally, Jordan has cooperated closely with Israel to maintain the status quo in Jerusalem, and Israel has formally recognized Jordan's role as the sole custodian of the Holy City's Muslim shrines, in line with the 1994 "Arava agreement." However, Israel's preference to work with UNESCO as opposed to Jordan regarding repairs to the Al Aqsa staircase was seen to be aimed at ending Jordan's exclusive role as sole custodian of Jerusalem's Muslim shrines.
There is a virtual consensus in the Arab media that Russia has been the winner in its bloody attack on Georgia, while the U.S. and its Western allies failed to protect their Georgian ally. Following the Russian invasion of Georgia, King Abdullah II flew to Moscow and indicated an interest in buying Russian weapons, with all of the implications such a move entails.
Hamas influence in Jordan and the West Bank is rising. Iran and Russia are moving to reshape the Middle East. At the same time, Jordan fears it cannot trust the political will of its traditional allies as Israel has diplomatically engaged Jordan's adversaries - Syria and Hamas. Jordan's current policy can best be categorized as a "distress call" - one that should be heeded by Israel and the West before it is too late.
A 180-Degree Shift
Until recently, Jordan was the only Arab country that had boycotted the fundamentalist Hamas movement and prohibited its leadership entry into Jordan. Amman had ordered Hamas to close its offices in 1999 and leave the country when it was revealed that Hamas' Amman bureau had been engaged in planning sabotage and terror operations. Subsequently, the Hamas leadership headed by Khaled Mashaal attempted to relocate to Qatar, but instead moved its base of operations to Damascus in the same year. As recently as April 2006, Jordan openly accused Mashaal of planning to assassinate government leaders and launch terror attacks in the kingdom.1
However, in July 2007 it was reported that Jordanian intelligence had held a series of meetings with Hamas leaders in order to end the hostile relations with the monarchy and start afresh. The Jordanian leadership initiated the meetings. This apparent 180-degree shift in policy was accented by King Abdullah II's visit to Moscow in August 2008 - in the immediate aftermath of the Moscow visit by Syrian President Bashar Assad on the heels of the Russian invasion of Georgia. Abdullah reportedly raised the option with his Kremlin hosts of purchasing Russian weaponry for the Jordanian army.2
What caused Jordan's 180-degree shift? A large part of the answer lies in the conviction that the Annapolis peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapse. Currently, Jordanian government leaders are concerned with their increasingly precarious situation. Iran, its Syrian partner and Hizbullah and Hamas proxies are playing a destabilizing role in the region, while Jordan sees Israel and the United States as currently unwilling to confront them.
Abdullah senses danger in a troubling regional context featuring the likely the collapse of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, a very weak Palestinian Authority leadership, and growing Hamas power in the West Bank and in Jordan. Amman is not confident that Israel and the U.S.-led Western alliance will contain the growing threats.
Perhaps Jordan's greatest fear is that it be considered the "alternative homeland" for the Palestinians instead of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. That is why all political formulas that Jordan is ready to consider are based on the "two-state solution" - a Palestinian state by definition in the West Bank and Gaza and a Jordanian state by definition in the East Bank. Jordan would only consider confederation arrangements with the Palestinians after a Palestinian state is declared west of the Jordan River.
King Abdullah had been one of the biggest supporters of the Annapolis peace process and had acted as one of its main "behind-the-scenes" advocates. However, as negotiations hit a dead end, Abdullah lost interest, and then became alarmed when he internalized the dangers inherent in the lack of political will displayed by Israel, the United States, and the West in confronting the regional threats emanating from Iran, its Syrian ally, and surrogates such as Hizbullah and Hamas.
Jordan: Israel Negotiated a Cease-Fire with Hamas
According to leading Jordanian columnist Muhammad Hussein al-Mu'mini, writing in the mainstream Jordanian daily al-Ghad, "the problem began when Israel made the tahdiya [calm] agreement with Hamas after conducting negotiations with them through the Egyptians as if Hamas is a sovereign political entity."3 Al-Mu'mini also noted, "the tahdiya caused great embarrassment to the PA and the moderate Arab countries, even to the international community that put Hamas in siege." Israel, he said, "exploded the policy of isolating Hamas."
Israel's regional policies have thrown Jordan off balance. Mu'mini noted that in the prisoner deal with Hizbullah, Israel "sharpened Hizbullah's spear and gave it both international and Lebanese legitimacy. It would have been better to hand the prisoners to the Lebanese government." There was a Jordanian aspect to the deal with Hizbullah, as Israel also agreed to hand over to Hizbullah the bodies of Jordanians. According to Mu'mini, this was an "extreme provocation to Jordanian diplomacy." He explained that, "There is a peace accord with Jordan giving Jordan and Israel the legal cover for the exchange of the dead prisoners' bodies." If Israel, for pragmatic reasons, finds it appropriate to engage with Hamas, why shouldn't Jordan do the same?
Another Jordanian analyst, Hamadeh Farawna, considers Hamas' tahdiya agreement with Israel the main reason behind the Jordanian-Hamas reengagement.4 According to Farawna's assessment, Jordan was also impressed by Hamas' resolve in obligating other terror factions in Gaza to observe Hamas' tahdiya with Israel. In this "encouraging" context, Amman decided to lessen tensions with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. Farawna reminded us that despite the years of boycott, Muhammad Nazzal of the Hamas diaspora politburo would still visit Amman every three months.5
It is critical to consider that in May 2008, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan elected Hamam Said, a self-proclaimed Hamas figure from Jenin, as its leader. Said did not conceal his views that Jordan must become a "muqawama - (resistance)" territory like Gaza and Lebanon.
A Political Dialogue between Jordan and Hamas
At this juncture, Jordanian intelligence exclusively has managed contacts with Hamas. However, a political dialogue will likely develop between Jordan and Hamas if the group assuages Jordanian concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood will "militarize" its activities in classical Hamas style.
Hamas, too, has sought a rapprochement with Jordan to further its interests. The organization has been unhappy with its isolation in Gaza and its precarious position in Damascus. While Damascus is not a natural choice for a Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, Hamas had little choice following its 1999 expulsion from Amman. Moreover, the strained relations between the secular Ba'athist regime in Damascus and the Muslim Brotherhood only intensified the problematic nature of Hamas' presence in Damascus.
Tensions worsened recently following the initiation of diplomatic contacts between Syria and Israel. Hamas suspects that Syria might exploit the meetings with Israel to tighten its grip on Hamas. A Fatah website went even further by publishing a report that Syrian intelligence arrested Hamas activists in Damascus.6 It is probable that Fatah sought to drive a wedge between Hamas and Syria. And while it is even possible that the report was fabricated, the political environment surrounding the report would seem to provide a pretext for its publication.
From Hamas' vantage point, the May 2008 election of Hamas leader Hamam Said as the new head of Amman's Muslim Brotherhood rendered Jordan the ideal location for the group's activities. Jordan, for its part, preferred the option of engaging Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in order to contain Said's aspirations to launch "resistance" actions from Jordanian soil, instead of confronting him, particularly while Israel has maintained a ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza.
Mashaal played an important role in Hamas' rapprochement with Jordan. On August 21, 2008, he said at a gathering of Palestinians in Damascus that Hamas opposes "all the projects" that are now on the table that aim at settling the refugees in Lebanon or the "alternative homeland" in Jordan. "We shall not accept a solution at the expense of Jordan, nor Lebanon, nor any other (Arab) party."7
Despite Jordan's anxiety over Hamas and the prospect of being called an "alternative Palestinian homeland," and in line with its insistence on a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the kingdom has on occasion indicated its readiness to assist the Palestinians in the West Bank. Prior to the Annapolis process, Jordan reportedly was interested in dispatching the Jordanian-commanded Palestinian Badr Forces to the West Bank in order to impose the rule of law.8 Israel blocked the initiative, but Jordan has still not disbanded the 2,000-man Palestinian security force that was recruited from Jordan - not the West Bank. The force belongs to the PLO's Liberation Army and maintains allegiance to the Palestinian flag. However, the force is under the complete authority of the Jordanian supreme command. Israel's cabinet decision to torpedo the Badr Force option shelved a potential opportunity to advance tripartite cooperation between Jordan, Israel, and moderate Palestinians to advance the situation on the West Bank towards a permanent solution.
However, Jordan's current engagement of Hamas seems to indicate that Abdullah will pursue a negative and more confrontational posture towards Israel.
Jordan may have already begun its new approach over the sensitive political issue of Jerusalem. In early August 2008, Jordan launched a campaign of tough rhetoric against Israeli and Western activity in eastern Jerusalem that seemed to proximate Hamas' declarations.9 For example, both Hamas and Jordan publicly rejected the role of UNESCO's construction work on the staircase leading up to the Muslim holy sites via the Mugrabi Gate.
The Jordan-Israel Relationship
Traditionally, Jordan has cooperated closely with Israel to maintain the status quo in Jerusalem, and Israel has formally recognized Jordan's role as the sole custodian of the Holy City's Muslim shrines, in line with the 1994 Arava agreement signed by former King Hussein and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. So it is a sign of acute Jordanian distress that Jordan has recently attempted to draw international attention to the Jerusalem issue.
For its part, Hamas opposes any non-Muslim involvement in the areas in and around Jerusalem's Muslim holy shrines. Jordan's al-Mu'mini wrote that Israel's preference to work with UNESCO as opposed to Jordan regarding repairs to the Al Aqsa staircase was "the last straw," as it appeared to be aimed at ending Jordan's exclusive role as sole custodian of Jerusalem's Muslim shrines in cooperation with Israel.
The Return of Russia's Influence
Jordan also received a bear hug from an unexpected source: Dr. Ahmad Yusuf, advisor to Hamas Prime Minister Isma'il Haniye said: "The fundamental issue in (the Jerusalem crisis) is that there are historic relations and religious and social links between us and Jordan in addition to the (Jordanian) political interest in the Palestinian problem since its inception." Hamas' cozying up to Jordan does not necessarily indicate a readiness to close ranks over the Palestinian issue. However, it does reflect the roles of Iran and Russia in a recalibration of superpower politics. Yusuf noted, "The contacts between Jordan and Hamas are a result of regional and international developments."10 Decoding his statement means: 1. Hamas is completing the expulsion of Fatah from Gaza, and stands to takeover the West Bank; 2. The Russian invasion of Georgia signals a major recalibration of power in the Middle East that works in Hamas' favor.
There is a virtual consensus in the Arab media that Russia has been the winner in its bloody attack on Georgia, while the United States and its Western allies failed to protect their Georgian ally. Lebanese commentator Eyad Jamaleddine noted on the Ya Liban website that the "U.S. abandoned Georgia as it did Lebanon."11 In the London daily al-Quds al-Arabi, Abd al-Bari Atwan asked: Has the American honeymoon ended?12
King Abdullah wasted no time in appealing to the reemerging Russian power. Following the Russian invasion of Georgia, he flew to Moscow and indicated an interest in buying Russian weapons, with all of the serious implications such a move entails. The London-based Al-Hayat disclosed that the king visited a Russian base near Moscow to watch a demonstration of the Russian arsenal.13 Russian sources told the paper that the visit gave a "strong push" to military cooperation between the two countries, and that Jordan received a license to manufacture the Russian RPG 32 anti-tank missile, to be called "Hashem," with permission to sell this missile to third countries.
Jordan is growing increasingly uneasy. Hamas influence in Jordan and the West Bank is rising. Iran and, more recently, Russia are ascendant and moving to reshape the Middle East. At the same time, Jordan fears it cannot trust the political will of its traditional allies. The United States appears to have backed off on Iran and Syria, while Washington has avoided confrontation with Russia. Furthermore, Israel has diplomatically engaged Jordan's adversaries - Syria and Hamas.
Jordan has not yet upgraded it contacts with Hamas beyond security cooperation, to the political level. Hamas sources in Damascus confirmed that Jordan would not be inviting Mashaal to Amman, and Hamas' politburo is not to be reinstated in the Jordanian capital.14 Jordan has not continued its aggressive rhetoric over Jerusalem. As al-Mu'mini notes, "Jordan wants to keep its peace treaty with Israel," but at the same time it seeks to create the means to force Israel to take Jordan more seriously. Jordan's current policy can best be categorized as a "distress call" - one that should be heeded by Israel and the West before it is too late.
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2. 23 August 2008, http://www.daralhayat.com/world_news/europe/08-2008/Article-20080822-ebc83b79-c0a8-10ed-01bf-ee3371dc20cf/story.html
3. Al-Gahd, 22 August 2008, http://www.alghad.jo/index.php?article=10128
4. Al-Gahd, 18 August 2008, http://www.alghad.jo/index.php?article=10086
6. http://www.alkofia.com/news/2008/08/21/2617/ المخابرات_السورية_تعتقل_10_من_أفراد_حماس_الانقلابية_فى_سوريا_.html
7. Falasteen al-An website, http://www.paltimes.net/arabic/?action=detile&detileid=19464
8. http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3043421,00.html, for example.
9. http://www.alquds.co.uk/index.asp?fname=today\24x85.htm&storytitle=ff الأردن%20يستعد%20'لتصعيد%20دبلوماسي'%20دولي%20ضد%20إسرائيل'بسبب%20حفريات%20المسجد%20الأقصى%20ومصادرة%20وثائقهfff&storytitleb=&storytitlec=
10. http://www.paltimes.net/arabic/?action=showcaht&cid=71, interview with Hamas website, Filasteen al-An.
12. 25 August 2008, http://www.alquds.co.uk/index.asp?fname=today\24z50.htm&storytitle=ff نهاية%20شهر%20العسل%20الامريكي؟fff&storytitleb=عبد%20الباري%20عطوان&storytitlec=
13. 23 August 2008, http://www.daralhayat.com/world_news/europe/08-2008/Article-20080822-ebc83b79-c0a8-10ed-01bf-ee3371dc20cf/story.html
14. Al-Anba of Kuwait, 4 September 2008, http://www.alanba.com.kw/AbsoluteNMNEW/templates/?a=33630&z=13
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Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Palestinian affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently reports for several foreign media outlets. He is the author of a number of books on the Palestinians including The Palestinians: Between Terrorism and Statehood.
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