In the long struggle over the ownership of the territory commonly referred to as either Israel, Palestine or the Transjordan (Jordan, for short), the complex relationship between East Bankers and West Bankers rarely enters into the popular media dialogue. But for nearly forty years the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan ruled over the West Bank (either directly or indirectly) and had made all its Palestinian residents citizens of the kingdom. Over time and for a multitude reasons, many West Bank Palestinians moved east into the Transjordan. This large majority population of both West Bank Palestinians and ex-West Bank Palestinians (now living in Jordan) comprises over ninety percent of the Hashemite Kingdom’s citizenry. Although it is rarely talked about by the political establishment in Washington and by the three Middle East parties to the conflict (Israel, Jordan and the PLO), the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be solved without addressing the political linkage between the kingdom of Jordan and the West Bank.
The Transjordan had nearly always been a part of the historic landscape of either ancient Israel, its various cartographic conceptions over the millennia, or the modern-day League of Nations Mandate which established the current states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. The Transjordan is as crucial to the very integrity of the territory commonly called either Israel or Palestine, as Ohio is to the United States. The separation of the East Bank territory from the original Mandate for Palestine was the “square peg in a round hole” which culminated in a three-way contest for the future of the Holy Land.
In 1948, two nation states arose out of the Arab-Israeli war for Palestine — Jordan and Israel. Jordan was Arab, and Israel was Jewish. Jordan occupied the western bank of the Jordan River giving the territory a brand new name, the West Bank. Up until that time, and for thousands of years, the territory had always been called Judea and associated with ancient Israel. During the era of the Arab invasion and beyond, it had never been called the West Bank or Palestine by any of its Islamic occupiers.
The first king of Jordan, Abdullah I, wanted to name his kingdom Palestine. But the British government (which both bankrolled and supervised the nascent kingdom) suggested that to call the kingdom Palestine would automatically place the monarchy in a dangerous situation. Because the vast majority of West Bank Palestinians did not identify with the king or his kingdom, the British felt that the king’s minority supporters, the desert Bedouin tribes, needed a nationality category of their own. It was the British who suggested that the king call his new kingdom Jordan. From that time forward, the issue for the Jordanian monarchy became how to integrate its majority Palestinian citizens into a “Jordanian” nationality identity.
Throughout the 1950’s and up until the 1967 war with Israel, the Palestinians of the West Bank either rebelled against Jordanian authority or moved eastward in order to better avail themselves of the economic opportunities in “Jordan proper”. Since Jordan was an absolute monarchy with both executive and legislative branches of government vested solely with the monarch, a deep discrimination against Palestinians and Palestinian nationalism emanated from the royal palace. This discrimination grew into a structure which encompassed a deep division between the “Jordanian” East Bank Bedouin tribes (loyal to the king) and the Palestinians (whose loyalty was always considered suspect). The vast majority of government jobs and crucial military and security posts were held strictly by loyal East Bank Bedouin tribesmen. When parliamentary elections were allowed (by royal discretion only), Palestinian representation was diluted to ensure a Bedouin majority. Only upper-class Palestinians, whose loyalty to the Jordanian state was unquestioned, were allowed executive-level government posts.
Throughout its history, Jordan has been correctly perceived as a pro-western monarchy whose loyalty to both Washington and London has rarely been in question. Both Britain and the US have a long history of support for oppressive absolute monarchies and military dictators in the Middle East. But in the case of Jordan, the political situation is completely unique. While Americans support Israel because it is a bastion of pluralistic democracy within the region (all Palestinians living in Israel have exactly the same political rights as the majority Jewish population), the US government’s support of Jordan is based on geopolitical strategic concerns. It is for these strategic factors that Washington and the king remain close.
First and foremost, Jordan and the East Bank territory it represents has become the crucial “buffer state” within a highly volatile region whose main natural resource (oil) has been vital to the world’s economy. This “buffer state” status protects both Israel and Saudi Arabia from encroachment by radical anti-Western powers (Iran, Iraq or Syria). With Jordan as the buffer, a pro-US regional alignment stretching from Cairo to the Persian Gulf has stood unimpeded for nearly four decades. But another key factor has also played an extremely important role in Jordan’s success with the Washington and London establishments: Throughout its history, the Jordanian monarchy has been portrayed as a moderate Arab force for peace with Israel. This hope has turned on a tacit, three-way friendly relationship between Washington, Jerusalem and Amman to manage the Palestinian question into a geographic design which would benefit the US-led regional alignment into the future.
At the time (1993), the Oslo Accords were merely another installment in the Israeli-Jordanian tacit understanding that, in a three-way competition, it is best to have an ally. But the minority-based Jordanian monarchy has proven the inherent weakness of this Israeli-Jordanian configuration. Simply put, the Palestinians refused to be managed by Jerusalem and Amman. On the contrary, the PLO has understood since the 1970’s that the Jordanian monarchy is vulnerable to an ANC type revolution. They also understood that in any “final deal” with Israel, the border on the Jordan River had to be under their control and not subject to Israeli oversight. So, for over twenty years Israel and the Palestinians have squabbled. Now the Oslo process is dead, and everyone (Israel, Jordan, the US and the UK) are at an intellectual loss as to what to do.
The simple truth is that the region and its superpower backer (the US) are both in flux. The Obama administration’s idea that life and death decisions on the peace process could be made within this context was (to be kind) unrealistic. But the Oslo paradigm is flawed for another, and more complex, reason. The problem of the West Bank cannot be solved without a concurrent understanding as to its future relationship with the East Bank. Jordan, as a monarchy, has been an unstable “apartheid state” whose survival has been dependent on both outside powers and the domestic domination of an extreme minority over the vast majority. Of course no one wants Jordan to fall into the Iranian camp (are you listening, Mr. Secretary of State?), but peace between Israel and the Palestinians will require a “rounding of the square peg”. To do that will require a regional plan as well as a democratic Jordanian political inclusion into the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. So far, US leadership and understanding have been lacking on these issues. To nobody’s surprise other than Kerry and Obama, their recent peace initiative failed. It had nowhere else to go.
The essential question for the Middle East has never been the issue of the future of Israel or Palestine. The essential question is how a permanent regional structure for peace can be achieved with the complete absence of any hegemonic power or combination of powers. But this not just unique to the Middle East. It is true of both Europe and East Asia. What the Washington “think tank establishment” fails to understand is that so-called diplomatic success must be an end in itself (lasting peace) and not merely a means to an undefined and temporary political end. Peace, for Israel, must solve the regional context and not exacerbate it. In this context, the current Iranian nuclear negotiations have been flawed from the beginning. Iran seeks either regional hegemony or the prevention of one. Either way, the balance of power can never be put into any equilibrium. And without a permanent structure of non-hegemony in the Middle East, the vital issue of the Jordanian buffer state can never be fully resolved.
It’s like the domino effect in reverse: Without a solution to the Jordanian buffer-state question, how can an anti-apartheid democratic formula proceed? And without a democratic solution in Jordan, how can the three-way competition for historic Israel-Palestine (including the Transjordan) ever find its round peg? Meanwhile, as the region falls further and further toward an all-encompassing war, the Jordanian monarchy risks destabilization. The difference between the current administration’s perception of the situation and the Israeli perspective is that the Israelis have to live in the region. So sooner, rather than later, Jerusalem must tell their American friends that now has become the time to advocate for democracy in Jordan. Apartheid is an ugly word, but it applies more to Jordan than it ever did to Israel (are you listening, Mr. Secretary of State?).
The real question to ask is this: Does the US government have the resolve to stand up for its principles? And if the answer is yes, the Jordanian king must be persuaded gently. In fact, no one in Israel or the US seeks his overthrow. It is not a coup or a revolution that is desired, but an orderly constitutional enfranchisement of all Jordanian citizens’ rights. In other words, a British-style monarchy, where the king reigns but does not rule. But this must not be done in a regional vacuum. The US must also put forward a “grand bargain” in order to eliminate all hegemonic designs, whether they be one-state nuclear, superpower, Sunni or Shiite. It’s not a question of either/or. Both projects must proceed simultaneously. It’s like quantum physics, both a particle and a wave at the same time. But without presidential leadership, none of this is possible. The ball should be placed firmly in the king’s court. Only President Obama can do this. Apartheid is an ugly word; the more it is used by the Palestinians against Israel, the more it will also be used against Jordan.
In the final analysis, Jordan will never be allowed to strip its Palestinian citizens of their citizenship. Like the other Arab states of the Levant, Jordan must evolve into a democratic polity with both constitutional rights and responsibilities. All “Jordanians” — whether they be Bedouin or Palestinian — must have equal rights within a democracy. Then, and only then, can the dual issues of the region and the West Bank-Judea be decided justly. Are you listening, Your Majesty?