A few years ago I was talking Israeli foreign policy with an acquaintance who had been a top political operative for one of the highest ranking Republican politicians in the country. In response to my thoughts on how the situation with the Palestinians would eventually be resolved, he said to me with some surprise that everyone he speaks to in Israel tells him that Jordan is eventually going to absorb the West Bank and effectively serve as a Palestinian state. I immediately thought of this conversation last weekend upon seeing the reports that Mahmoud Abbas had told a group of Israelis that the Trump peace team had floated the idea of a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation, and that he would support a confederation if it included Israel as well. It seems that Ecclesiastes is right that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, but just because an idea refuses to die does not mean that it actually has a pulse.
The idea of a confederation between Jordan and the West Bank is an old one. In the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War in June 1967, the Israeli government debated what to do with the newly conquered territory. Returning some of it to Jordan under a negotiated agreement was one of the options raised then. In 1987, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Jordan’s King Hussein reached an agreement to have Jordan take sovereignty over most of the West Bank, but Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir rejected the arrangement; the irony of Israel’s most right-wing and hawkish prime minister killing the option that is now favored by many on the Israeli right proves that history does indeed have a sense of humor. Israelis who do not believe in the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism or do not trust the Palestinians to allow Israel to live in peace and quiet look eastward in the hopes that Jordan will solve their problem for them. So in some sense it is not surprising that the Trump White House has reportedly attached itself to the Jordanian-Palestinian idea. Why, then, do I reject this idea out of hand as fantastical?
For a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation to be a workable solution for resolving the long-term status of the West Bank (leaving the question of Gaza aside for now), it has to be acceptable to both sides. Abbas seems to be signaling his acceptance – more on that in a moment – but if there is one policy item that is an absolute non-starter with Jordan, it is any type of confederation with the Palestinians or responsibility for the West Bank. It is a running theme of every conversation with Jordanian officials high and low. Jordan has enough trouble with its existing Palestinian majority population since many do not support the Hashemite royal family, and absorbing even more Palestinians would hasten the end of Jordan’s monarchy. Furthermore, Jordan is pressed for natural resources and is particularly in need of water, being the world’s second most water-stressed country. Joining with 2.5 million Palestinians who also do not have many readily available sources of fresh water is only going to make Jordan’s water situation worse. A confederation with the West Bank makes no sense for Jordan politically or economically, which is why it is not even a conversation worth having in Amman’s view. Indeed, the Jordanian government’s succinct response to Abbas’s mention of the Trump proposal was immediate rejection.
Why Abbas is suddenly bringing up the confederation idea is worth ruminating upon. The Palestinian leadership has historically been opposed to a confederation with Jordan for the same reason that many on the Israeli right favor it; having Jordan take control of the West Bank without creating a Palestinian state is a rejection of the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism. Palestinian reactions to Abbas’s reported comments reflected this, in addition to the long-standing Palestinian suspicion that talk of a confederation with Jordan is an effort to divide the Palestinian polity by leaving Gaza out.
It is possible that Abbas views accepting a confederation as a backdoor to creating a Palestinian state, since a confederation implies an equal status between the two entities and this would be a tacit way of recognizing a state of Palestine. It is possible that Abbas is trolling the Israeli government by announcing that he will accept a confederation only if it includes the poison pill of incorporating Israel too, which is a condition that Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu will never accept. It is possible that Abbas is trying to embarrass and discredit President Trump and his Middle East negotiating team by revealing to the world that the allegedly innovative and super secret American peace plan is nothing more than a recycled fantasy of the Israeli right. And it is possible that Abbas is a tired old man at the end of his rope and grasping at straws out of desperation, and that there is no more strategy behind this move than there is behind Trump’s late night tweeting.
There are two other brief elements to this that bear pointing out. One is that there is something amazingly un-self aware about Israelis arguing that Jordan absorbing the West Bank makes sense because the people on both sides of the Jordan River were simply considered Arabs without a national identity before the British artificially split them a century ago, and thus there is no need to recognize Palestinian nationalism. If Israel, a country only seven decades old that has absorbed people from Central Europe, Yemen, the former Soviet Union, and Ethiopia – some of whom did not even know that the others existed! – has managed to create an Israeli identity out of whole cloth, it seems like the height of chutzpah to claim that Palestinians are not entitled to do the same because they did not think of themselves in national terms one hundred years ago. The second is that the Palestinian-Jordanian confederation idea is being pushed on the Jordanians, a group that wants absolutely no part of it, by an administration that famously will not utter the phrase “two-state solution” because it says it will only support whatever outcome the parties themselves want. If you needed any evidence that we are living in the strangest possible timeline, look no further.