A homeland ... in Jordan?

AMMAN — Israel took cursory steps last week toward declaring Jordan the official Palestinian homeland but, in a backward step for the Arab-Israeli peace process, neglected to discuss the plan with Jordan.

The plan — introduced as a bill in the Knesset and supported by 53 of its 120 members — has led some lawmakers here to push for a severance of diplomatic ties with Israel. Shortly before U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to unveil a new peace plan in a speech in Cairo, the lawmakers have also called for a withdrawal from a 1994 peace treaty.

The bill is now being discussed by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. However, crucially, it lacks the support of many top Israeli officials, and because of the way the Israeli legislature works, it is unlikely to proceed further.

In fact, the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, in an interview on Israel Radio last Wednesday, strongly criticized the proposal, calling it a "baseless hallucination” that would interfere with Jordan’s internal affairs.

Despite this, many in Jordan say just consideration of such a bill sends the wrong message to Amman, which has been pushing to restart the peace progress.

“I don’t believe that the Israeli people want peace,” said Mamdouh Abbadi, a member of the Jordanian parliament. “If it was only extremists [who supported this bill], it would stop after three, or five or 10 members of parliament, not 53."

The idea of making Jordan into a Palestinian homeland is not new for Israel, but similar measures in the past have usually garnered only a limited number of supporters and the idea had remained largely on the fringes among Israel’s far right.

More than 50 percent of those living in Jordan are of Palestinian origin, and some Israelis argue that Jordan already serves as the de facto Palestinian state.

For Israel, designating Jordan as the Palestinian homeland would help alleviate the problem of dealing with West Bank Palestinians.

Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, director of the Swiss Center for Conflict Research, Management and Resolution at Hebrew University, said that the recent support for the bill in the Knesset may not indicate support for the idea of Jordan as a Palestinian homeland so much as it reveals Israeli concerns about the viability of a Palestinian state. While the majority of Israelis support a two-state solution, most are also concerned about a potential Palestinian state’s stability, especially amid the split between the Fatah and Hamas governments.

“The idea is that even if there is a Palestinian state it will not be a viable state and one of the options for the future is the question of some kind of consideration between the Palestinian state and Jordan,” said Bar-Siman-Tov.

But for Jordan, one of two Arab nations to hold a peace treaty with Israel (the other is Egypt), the discussion taking place in the Knesset is seen as a prelude to human rights violations against Palestinians and an encroachment on Jordanian affairs. There is a fear that were the bill to become law, Israel could use it to force people from their homes and say they have to go to their "homeland" in Jordan instead.

“What is happening in the Knesset is an aggression toward the regime and the laws and international resolutions of the U.N. security council,” said Khalil Atiyah, a member of Jordan’s parliament.

The situation is not helped by Israel’s new, conservative government. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was last in power in the late 1990s, he ordered an assassination attempt on a member of Hamas inside Jordan. At the time, the incident almost brought peace talks to a halt and today it stands as a reminder to Jordanians about the hard-line measures Netanyahu is willing to take.

Despite the strong reaction of some Jordanian parliamentarians, Mohammad Al-Momani, a political science professor at Yarmouk University, said that ultimately it’s the king and ministries that control foreign policy in Jordan, not the parliament.

If the king or other major foreign policy figures in Jordan had reacted strongly to the Knesset bill, it could have stalled the peace process, Al-Momani said. “Obama would have had other things on his plate to look at instead of focusing only on this two-state solution that the current Israeli government is not committing to.”

So although the Knesset bill is not likely to become official policy, many Jordanians are not quite so confident. “Since we have an extremist government [in Israel], we do not expect any good actions from it,” Atiyah said.

Since Israel’s recent war with Gaza, there has been mounting pressure from the Jordanian public on the government to take a firmer stand against Israel. Given King Abdullah II’s efforts to reignite the peace process over the last several months, it remains highly unlikely that the government will take action on any of the parliamentarians’ calls to cut diplomatic ties with Israel. The king has, however, said that there will likely be renewed fighting if there is no peace within the next 12 to 18 months.

“The Jordanian public opinion, already as it is, is not favorable of the existing government or the coalition that is in charge in Israel. This simply makes it worse,” said Nawaf Tell, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “The Israelis are sending all the wrong signals to the peace camps in the region and Jordan in particular, who is trying to relaunch the peace the peace process on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

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