Jordan caused a stir in Israel this week with its announcement that it would not be renewing an annex to the peace treaty between the two countries that expires next year on the treaty’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Contrary to the breathless and misleading headlines, Jordan is not canceling part of the peace treaty; the peace treaty itself remains in full effect. But while the practical implications of this move are minimal, it is a warning sign of real danger ahead for Israel-Jordan relations, and Israel should do what it can to shore up the relationship before things get off the rails.
The 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty contains two annexes that grant Israel a 25 year lease to two agricultural areas opposite Naharayim and Tzofar. The leases automatically renew unless one side gives notice that it wishes to terminate these annexes, which is what Jordan did this week. The terms of the annexes now require talks between the two parties over their renewal, but the chances that Jordan changes its mind are somewhere between slim and non-existent. The end of this particular lease arrangement is not in itself a big deal and should not be blown out of proportion, but neither should it be dismissed out of hand. It is a reflection of political pressures in Jordan and enormous frustration with the Israeli government that extends from ordinary Jordanians up to the royal court.
Despite the peace treaty and the extensive cooperation between Israel and Jordan on everything from security to water to energy, Israel is deeply unpopular in Jordan and is a constant hot-button issue in Jordanian domestic politics. Many Jordanians want to cancel the peace treaty with Israel entirely, and there have been protests in Jordan against the treaty and cooperation with Israel more generally. Jordanians have been protesting over economic issues for months, including protests over the summer against a new tax bill that brought down the prime minister, so ending the lease arrangement is a political no-brainer. It lets King Abdullah do something that has wall-to-wall support, distracts from pressing economic problems, and doesn’t actually impact the real coordination between Israel and Jordan on things that matter far more to both sides.
It also lets the king reassert Jordanian sovereignty against perceived Israeli encroachment in the wake of the shooting at the Israeli embassy in Amman in July 2017, where an Israeli guard killed two Jordanians following an attempt to stab him. The return of the guard to Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public embrace of him – both figuratively and literally, as photos of Netanyahu hugging the guard blanketed media in both countries – created a diplomatic rift that was not resolved until this past January, when Israel formally apologized. In Jordanians’ eyes, Israel got away not only with killing an innocent Jordanian bystander, but then compounded the insult by whisking the man who pulled the trigger out of Jordan and treating him to a hero’s welcome after promising not to do so, and by declining to prosecute him in Israel. Jordanians understandably view this as trampling on their sovereignty, and eliminating an arrangement that allows Israelis to come and go on sovereign Jordanian territory is viewed as a punishment that goes toward righting a similar wrong.
The danger here though is that this move will not be an isolated one. Cooperation between Jordan and Israel is too important to Jordan for the king to put the big ticket items at real risk. Jordan relies on Israel to help maintain internal security through intelligence sharing, for natural gas already flowing from the Tamar field and more that will come from Leviathan through a new pipeline being built, and for water. It is in neither side’s interest to disrupt these arrangements, and up until now the Jordanian royal court and the government have withstood all kinds of political pressure inside Jordan to cut back on cooperation with Israel. What makes the end of the agricultural leases more significant than they appear at first glance is that the campaign inside Jordan to end them is viewed as a first step toward ending a number of other agreements as well, and absent some shifts in Israeli behavior to provide Jordan with political cover, the momentum to revisit other deals is going to grow.
A majority of Jordanian MPs signed a petition last spring demanding that the lease arrangement not be renewed. The same majority of MPs are also calling for Jordan to pull out of the deal to buy Israeli natural gas. While that eventuality is not realistic now, it is only because the Egyptian natural gas industry is in a relatively sad state, which is what led Jordan to turn to Israel in the first place after previously buying gas from Egypt. Once Egypt gets its Zohr field up and running, it will be easier for Jordan to increase its purchases of Egyptian gas and actually contemplate pulling out of the Leviathan deal with Israel. Not only would this be bad for bilateral relations, it would be a serious blow to Israeli gas producers, as there are few remaining options for Leviathan exports. None of this is helped along by Jordan’s anger at Israel for delaying implementation of the Red-Dead agreement between the two sides and that is supposed to, among other things, allow Jordan to buy more water from the Kinneret to meet its potable water needs. In other words, Israel assumes that nothing will disrupt its various agreements with Jordan, and that is almost certainly true about the peace treaty, but some of the other arrangements are coming under growing stress and should not be taken for granted.
It is critical to understand that states often do things that appear to be self-defeating because they need to account for domestic political pressures. This is even more acute in places that are facing serious and structural economic problems. Israel would be wise to take Jordanian domestic politics into account and act now to take steps that will relieve some of this pressure. This includes moving on the Red-Dead project rather than stalling, playing down the impact and importance of the end of the agricultural leases, and generally making it easier for Jordanians to see the benefit of cooperation with Israel. Otherwise, Israel may find that its fundamental relationship with Jordan begins to die a death of a thousand small cuts.