The Return of the Jordanian Option

June 20, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in National Interest on June 20, 2007.

Remember that famous line — “The road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad” — used by U.S. President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisors to drum up support for an American invasion of Baghdad? On the eve of the war, Bush Administration officials tried to persuade the international community — and the Arab world in particular — that the emergence of a pro–U.S. democracy in Iraq, the spread of American values in the Middle East and a visible American presence there would create the conditions for resolving the Israeli–Palestinian problem According to the Bush Administration’s rhetoric, the war in Iraq and peace in the Promised Land were of a piece.

But like the other neoconservative grand designs — establishing a pro–American democracy in Iraq; weakening the power of Hizballah in Lebanon; spreading freedom in the Middle East; countering the influence of Syria and Iran in the region — the plans for creating an independent Palestinian state and for building a lasting Israel–Palestine peace, lie in ruins. Since Bush’s previous policies towards Palestine have decidedly failed — and the current one seems doomed to fail as well — it is time to revive the “Jordanian option.” Involving Jordan in the Palestinian issue is the best hope for stability in the West Bank.

Wrong Turns

True to its Wilsonian bent, the Bush Administration originally pressed for free and open elections in Palestine against the advice of Fatah Party chief and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. When the corrupt and ineffective — but secular — Fatah was soundly defeated by the Islamist Hamas party, the shocked Bush Administration was forced to adjust its policy towards the Palestinians. The administration refused to engage the new Hamas government, and — backed by the EU — took steps to isolate Hamas economically and diplomatically. At the same time, Bush’s team pressed Abbas and Fatah to form a center of power capable of counterbalancing the strength of Hamas.

Now, the recent dissolution of the Hamas–Fatah unity government, followed by Hamas’s violent takeover of Gaza, has upset the Bush Administration’s strategy for crushing the Islamist party. President Bush and his aides must change policy course once again, so they are now trying to spin that setback to their advantage. Since Fatah exercises sole control over the West Bank, the administration has proposed the formation of a Western–oriented, Fatah–led Palestinian entity in the West Bank, headed by Abbas. Meanwhile, in Gaza, the administration can continue to pursue its strategy of isolating and eventually strangling Hamas.

But the notion of establishing a pro–American “West Palestine”, with its 2.5 million Palestinian Arabs (and about 400,000 Jewish settlers), to confront the pro–Islamist “East Palestine” or “Hamastan” in the Gaza Strip, with its 1.5 million Palestinians, seems to be just another fantasy concocted in the White House. While there are certainly some cultural and economic differences between the more secular, urban society in the West Bank and the poorer, more religious population in Gaza, Palestinian nationalism provides a sense of identity strong enough to unite both groups. It should also be noted that Hamas won an impressive electoral victory in both Gaza and the West Bank in 2006, and that Fatah remains a weak political and military power.

It is possible that, in the short run, the infusion of American economic aid to the West Bank could help bring some stability to the area. But many of the long–term political problems that divide the Israelis and the Palestinians — in particular, the fate of Jerusalem and the 1948 Palestinian refugees’ right of return — are not going to be resolved any time soon. It is also quite likely that Hamas supporters in the West Bank will try to launch an Iraq–style insurgency against the Fatah leadership in the coming months. Meanwhile, the United States will probably continue to isolate Gaza, and the Israelis may even launch military attacks against it. These developments are bound to produce an explosive situation that could force outside military forces, perhaps even NATO troops, to intervene.

The Option’s on the Table

But what if the road to Jerusalem runs through Amman? The instability in Palestine could help revive what has been referred to as the Jordanian Option, the notion that Jordan can play a political and military role in the West Bank, which it ruled from 1949 until 1967, potentially expanding into Gaza. This should be not be perceived as a return to the 1950 unification of the Jordanian and Palestinian territories, carried out by the king after a fixed parliamentary vote taken at the “request” of Palestinian leaders in the West Bank. Nor should the Jordanian Option’s revival reflect the wishful thinking of some Israeli leaders. These leaders hope that Israel can continue to rule the West Bank and to establish Jewish settlements there while its Palestinian residents vote in the Jordanian parliamentary elections.

Instead, a sustainable Jordanian Option should follow the lines of the proposal for a West Bank–Jordan confederation, first advanced by the late King Hussein in 1982. In fact, King Hussein’s proposal was discussed by the Palestine National Council at Algiers in February 1983, and the principle of a Palestinian–Jordanian confederation was approved on the condition that both members of the confederation would be independent states. Hussein’s initiative led to a 1985 accord between Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), forming a confederation to conduct peace negotiations with Israel.

However, the PLO eventually rejected the idea of a joint peace initiative because it refused to allow peace negotiations to be conducted under the auspices of UN Security Council Resolution 242. The United States also opposed the plan because it did not want to hold negotiations with the PLO in the context of an international conference.

But times have changed. Now, both Israel and the United States recognize the PLO as a legitimate negotiating party, and the PLO accepts UN Resolution 242, which laid down the principles for a “just and lasting peace” in the Middle East. Furthermore, Jordan has abandoned its attempts to extend its control over the West Bank, and the international community negotiates directly with the Palestinians.

A revitalized role for Jordan in Palestine and in the peace process with Israel could be beneficial to all sides. Jordan’s diplomatic, economic and military apparatus could provide the Palestinians with a powerful structure to revive the West Bank’s economy, to establish order and to renew negotiations with Israel. Moreover, Jordan, which has signed a peace agreement with Israel and maintains diplomatic relations with it, could establish a military presence in the West Bank — a move that would have to be backed by the Arab League and the UN. Jordan could also work to secure the final borders between Palestine and Israel. In the context of negotiations between Jordan–Palestine and Israel, Gaza would be encouraged to join the talks as troops from the Arab League, led by Egypt and the UN, established order in the territory.

A peace agreement between Israel and the Jordan–Palestine confederation could help stabilize the Israel–Palestine area, but only if the deal enjoys the support of the other Arab countries, including the Palestinians themselves. The Israelis and the Palestinians would still have to make hard concessions, but these would take place in a more stable diplomatic and security context. The road to Amman is indeed worth considering — and perhaps even taking.

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