|Jerusalem and Amman|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
The heat is torrid, and the atmosphere is both solemn and festive. It is October 26, 1994 in the Arava valley in Israel, north of Eilat, close to the border between Israel and Jordan. A platform has been erected and the flags of both nations flutter in the warm desert air. But why all this excitement? In a few moments Israel and Jordan are going to sign the historic peace treaty in the presence of US President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. To the applause of several hundred invitees, Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Abdul Salam Majali place their respective signatures on the document. A moment later, the President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, and King Hussein seal this historic occasion with a warm, symbolic handshake. Then a huge number of multi-colored balloons are released into the skies of the two nations that have just formalized their relations.
On the 15th anniversary of the signing, we wanted to learn about the development of relations between the two states and how they were today. To do so we went to meet H.E. JACOB ROSEN, a leading Arabist and Israel’s resident ambassador in Amman since September 2006. This is not his first posting to Jordan. Mr. Rosen had in fact opened the first Israeli embassy in the Jordanian capital in December 1994 in his capacity as Deputy Representative. There were then five and a half years until July 2000, of which for a year and a half he served as Chargé d’Affaires. Jacob Rosen has thus followed the diplomatic relations between the two countries since the beginning, when both Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein were still alive, and is fully acquainted with all the agreements and subsidiary treaties drawn up and eventually signed. In this regard it is interesting to note that the peace treaty of October 26, 1994 covered subjects as varied as the shared borders, water, crime and drugs, the environment, and more. The shared international borders are clearly described and divided into four sectors: the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, the Dead Sea, the Arava Valley (Israeli side) and Wadi Araba (Jordanian side), and the Gulf of Aqaba. Mr. Rosen was serving in Amman when King Hussein passed away and at the accession of King Abdullah.
What is your assessment of relations between Israel and Jordan?
Before answering your question, I must say that I have been in my position for three and a half years, during which we had the Second Lebanon War and the military operation in Gaza, which obviously played a role in the relations between our two countries. At the same time, other events indirectly related to Israel took place, in particular the American invasion of Iraq, which was of major importance for regional relations from every point of view, political, economic, environmental and others.
Having said which, the first thing that must be remembered when discussing Israel-Jordan relations is that we are neighbors. We share the same environment, the same water, the same altitudes, the same political and demographic concerns, and we have a 350 km long common border. Whether we like each other or not, geography and the environment are there and the many problems force us to cooperate. In the south, for example, we have two airports less than 6 km apart and two seaports separated by a 5 km stretch of water. The two ports are very active, and if there is an oil spill from a ship at anchor in one of the ports, we are all affected in the same way. On this same stretch of water there is a great deal of sporting activity and it is not unusual when there is a strong wind that people cross the international boundary. There are many examples, and I will just mention the problems arising from animal or vegetable diseases and the viruses that easily cross the border. Together we fight smuggling of every sort of item that takes place along and around the Dead Sea. Another area of cooperation is civil aviation. Planes of Royal Jordanian to Europe, Africa and America fly over Israel every day. All these issues and many others force us to work together, often in direct cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA). As you can imagine, the political situation is not always easy, not to say fragile, and often pressure from one direction or another prevents direct action. In this connection it is interesting to note that sometimes it is the PA people who get things moving while the Jordanians drag their feet for political reasons. That is what happened with swine fever, where PA officials told the Jordanians that “the advance of the virus will not wait until political problems have been solved”. What’s more, there are regularly initiatives, especially in the tourism field, from Japan and Europe, which require effective tripartite cooperation. For example, of a group of pilgrims wants to land in Amman and then go on to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. All the authorities involved need to be activated so that everything runs smoothly without administrative holdups.
To understand the framework within which our relations develop, I also need to mention the general political situation. This concerns the peace process with the PA and the major split in the Palestinian camp (PLO-Hamas), the likelihood of an American withdrawal from Iraq, and the doubts and fears this entails for all of us. To this must be added the fact that since the fall of Saddam, 600,000 to 800,000 Iraqis have fled their country and have settled in Jordan, and due to the instability in Iraq are not prepared to return there. While it is true that many of these people arrived with considerable financial resources, others came with only limited funds, because they had never dreamed of remaining more than five years in Jordan. Today they are starting to run short of money, which is likely to cause a problem for Jordan. And lastly there is the Jordanian population with its own identity, but which is not at all homogenous. Many of these people are of Palestinian origin.
Is this what is commonly referred to as the “Palestinians”?
Absolutely not, because there is a big difference between the “Palestinians” and people of Palestinian origin who live in Jordan. Incidentally, in that country it is more difficult to tell who is truly Palestinian than it is to define who is a Jew in Israel. There are people who came originally from Jerusalem or Nablus who for example have lived five or six generations in Amman. They consider themselves solely Jordanian, but are rejected by part of the population that does not accept them as an integral part of Jordan.
What about the rest of the local population?
The Hashemite dynasty has been able to maintain a certain unity among the population of seven million from very varied origins, including half a million foreign workers from Egypt and the approximately seven hundred thousand Iraqi refugees I mentioned. All these people use the country’s infrastructure, especially water, of which the Jordanians are cruelly short. This is one of the major issues handled on a daily basis between Israel and Jordan, and which takes up about a third of my time.
Since you mentioned water, can you in a few words explain what resources Israel waived as part of the bilateral accords and the peace agreement?
When the peace treaty was signed, the Jordanians said that the Jordan river that flows between the two states is fed by water from the Sea of Galilee and that there are agreements going back 50 years covering the sharing of this water. So Israel agreed to give Jordan 25 million cubic meters of water annually. The Jordan is also fed by the Yarmuk River, which flows into the Jordan at Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’acov. During the winter the Yarmuk produces a great deal of water, but Jordan has insufficient storage capacity. So we entered into an agreement whereby this water is rerouted to the Sea of Galilee, where we store it over the winter for Jordan and transfer it back in the summer. Jordan also has a water accord with Syria, by which the latter is expected to transfer the water of the Yarmuk to Jordan. However, for reasons of its own and following a dispute between the two countries, last winter Syria did not transfer all it was meant to and so part of the Yarmuk waters never reached us. Jordan is thus faced with a permanent shortage of water, and last year it asked us to lend her water against future flows in the winter, which we agreed to. It would in fact be very bad for Israel if Jordan were unable to quench its thirst, because that would lead to serious internal unrest that might gradually destabilize the country and even the region. You just need to take a look at the Bible to remember that even at that time men went to war for water. I would recall that two men with an agricultural training, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, did everything so that we should obtain the maximum amount of water from the Jordan. They were very aware of Israel’s strategic interest. Lastly, a third aspect of this issue is to be found in the peace treaty, where it is clearly stipulated that it is the responsibility of both countries to find more shared water. It was planned to set up a joint desalination program. However, this is an extremely complex physical process and the only place the Jordanians can set up such a plant is on the Gulf of Aqaba. I understand very well that they wish to preserve their independence in such a crucial area as water. I have proposed to them on several occasions to sell them low-salt content water from Hadera or Ashkelon. Due to the region’s political instability the answer has remained negative. As Israel’s ambassador and having lived for eight and a half years in Jordan, I can fully understand that they have very deep fears of becoming dependent for their water supply. This is all the more understandable since they have had a traumatic experience on this issue with Syria.
For many years there has been a question of building a Red Sea – Dead Sea canal. Wouldn’t that be a solution, and what happened to the project?
That’s a very complex question. The original idea was to save the Dead Sea. However, the Jordanians are saying that if such a transfer of water can be achieved, we could also benefit by desalinating part. For the time being the World Bank has requested a feasibility study. Due to the very particular characteristics of the waters no experiment has yet been undertaken and the tests cannot be done in a laboratory. It is not at all certain that that the chemical composition of the two seas is compatible. The big unknown is what will be the chemical reaction when enormous amounts of water are mixed. To date an environmental survey has shown that this mixture will release the formation of very large quantities of calcium. What is impossible to predict is if these blocks of calcium will float to the surface of the Dead Sea or sink to the bottom. If they remain on the surface it will not be possible to forecast the environmental consequences. However, we do not have limitless time. The Dead Sea is retreating every day and it is unreasonable to await the feasibility studies, which are proceeding extremely slowly, be complete. So we have jointly decided to start a pilot station in the desert to see if in practical terms this project is possible.
You have explained the complexity of the problems and cooperation between the two states, which in fact is dictated by geographical realities. If we move on to political issues, the first thing we would like to understand is why does Jordan maintain “Palestinian” refugee camps on its territory, fifteen years after signing a peace treaty with Israel?
In comparison with the situation of such people in other Arab countries, those living in these camps are relatively integrated. They enjoy complete freedom of movement and some of them hold Jordanian passports, which allows them to travel, but which do not confer nationality on them. However, there has been a decision of the Arab League to retain the “refugee” camps, and Jordan has not deemed it useful to act otherwise. Further, I would remind you that when we were in Gaza, Ariel Sharon tried to dismantle the camps and to integrate the inhabitants into regular life. It was the UN, for political reasons, that was opposed.
What are your current relations with the royal palace, and how were they during the reign of King Hussein?
Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein were the true godfathers of the peace agreements and each was personally deeply involved. We inherited that situation from our predecessors. Since I have been involved since the beginning of negotiations and of diplomatic relations, I know all the major players in Jordan. But what is even more important, they know me. That was how it was with King Hussein, and that is how it is with King Abdullah. There are certain ministers with whom I enjoy excellent relations, which are regular and effective, while others do wish to hear of normalization with us. I have no intention of trying to force them.
What is the status of Islamization in Jordan?
As you are aware, it is not a phenomenon that is limited to Jordan, but which we see developing gradually in Egypt, Gaza and the Judea and Samaria. In Jordan Islamization has a particular character, as against in Egypt, where the Islamic movement has always been against the government. In Jordan it accepts the authority of the Royal House. During the 1950s and 1960s, while some movements wanted to get rid of King Hussein, it was the Islamists who defended him. To this must be added something that is unique to Jordan, the importance of tribes. The people are first and foremost members of their tribe and only afterwards Islamists, democrats, members of a party or followers of a political philosophy. This incidentally creates certain problems within the kingdom, especially during times of elections. Many people vote for a member of parliament from their own tribe, even if they totally disagree with him. It would appear that following the victory of Hamas in Gaza, some members of the Islamic movement are stopping looking at things that way. However, that is a very marginal phenomenon, because tribal loyalty and discipline are still very strong. And I believe that the Jordanians have internal security firmly in hand.
How many tribes are there?
There are six or seven very large tribes that are all very loyal to the king. The tribes in the south are Bedouin, while those in the north are semi-nomadic farmers. They are intensely proud and very nationalist, because they have been living in this part of the world for over a thousand years. The stability and loyalty of the tribal system is very important, and we Jews should know that better than anyone, because our own people emerged from such a system. You just have to open the Bible to understand the power and importance of the tribes’ role.
What are the relations of the Arabs living in Judea and Samaria with these tribes?
Some tribes, especially those living in the northern Jordan Valley, have sometimes crossed the river in both directions. When you go from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea you can observe some members of these nomadic tribes that are temporarily living in that area. They have never been bothered by frontiers. There are still some villages in the Judea and Samaria whose inhabitants say they are come from one or other of the Jordanian tribes, even though they have been settled there for several centuries. Today there is an interesting phenomenon taking place in urban centers such as Amman, Aqaba, Zarqa etc, where about 20% of the marriages are between male members of certain tribes and young Palestinian girls (from families that left Israel in 1948). This is a stabilizing factor that in fact affects a large part of the population. It is not unusual to meet a family where the husband says he is Jordanian and the wife says she is originally Palestinian.
Do you believe that Jordan and the Royal Palace are seriously interested in seeing the emergence of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria, between Jerusalem and Amman?
The Jordanians say, “The Palestinians are guests in our country. They suffered a traumatic experience on account of the war with the Jews. As Hashemites we open our doors to all who need, but they deserve to have their own state and their own elected bodies”. What is more, the Arab League has recognized Palestine. Here is a perfect example of common interests, because it will be the responsibility of both Israel and Jordan to ensure that the new state does not fall into the hands of Hamas. The frontier between us is pretty calm and stable, and no one is interested that this should change. However, the Jordanians believe that first of all the Palestinians should be allowed to have their own state, and that only afterwards should “technical issues” be addressed.
Is it correct that a Jew may not purchase real estate in Jordan?
It is not a matter of whether the person is Jewish or not. Only holders of Arab passports can acquire property in the Hashemite kingdom. In fact, when we bought the embassy building we received a special permit from the Interior Ministry.
What security cooperation is there between the two armies?
We share the same view on the security issues that concern our political leaders, and thus we cooperate at all the various, required levels. We do not have military attachés at our respective embassies because we are just 25 minutes from the frontier, where liaison officers are based just a hundred meters apart.
Has it happened that as Ambassador of Israel you have been boycotted?
We are invited to all governmental events, and as I have lived in the country for a very long time, I have many acquaintances at every level, with whom I have excellent relations. However, the universities boycott us, which is quite ridiculous since they have hundreds of Israeli Arab students. However, at the universities they are considered “Palestinians”, notwithstanding their blue and white passports bearing the official symbol of the Jewish State, the seven-branched candelabra. What’s more, I have an open door at the royal palace.
In conclusion, we see that relations between Israel and Jordan are as complex as they are surprising. They develop in fits and starts, with long periods of quiet. They are in fact the living expression of the reality of Middle Eastern contradictions. The many facets of life between Jerusalem and Amman are those of two neighbors who have no choice but to help each other, even if not really motivated by feelings of friendship.