The Oslo Accords never made it past the interim phase because the future of the East Bank is as crucial to the process as the West Bank itself. Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority all recognize this reality but are unwilling to openly declare its existence. This central triangular relationship has been at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict since its inception nearly one hundred years ago. How long can this interim phase continue? As long as it takes to alter this three-way core relationship. In other words, it will either end through some new diplomatic initiative, or perhaps through a dramatic change in the regional balance of power.
For its part, Israel views Oslo as an extension of local autonomy. Let’s call this concept “sovereignty minus”. It’s a bit more than local self-rule, and it possesses a demilitarized component. “Palestine” is to be sandwiched between two sovereign powers. For essential strategic reasons (Israel is only nine miles wide without the Jordan Valley) severe air and ground limitations must be placed on any West Bank entity.
Even without the settlements (most are by the Green Line anyway), the question of defensible borders and strategic depth have stymied the process from the beginning. Israel and Jordan have worked for decades to confine the military dimension of Palestinian statehood to a mere police force and nothing more. Neither power has any other choice. Without military control of the crucial Jordan Valley mountain passes, Israel becomes indefensible. By any standard, the events of 1967 were a one-time military operation. They cannot be repeated because history does not repeat itself. If there were ever to be a next time (G-d forbid), the Arabs or the Iranians would protect their airfields from preemptive strike. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff said precisely this in an analysis of Israel’s military position in the aftermath of the 1967 war. The American military recommended that Israel hold on to 40% of the West Bank.
Jordan is equally as vulnerable. More than half of its population consider themselves Palestinian. The East Bank tribes, who have always been loyal to the Jordanian monarch, regard the Palestinians within the Kingdom with suspicion. These two communities fought a civil war in the early 1970’s. Today, there are many East Bankers who advocate the removal of Palestinians from Jordan, once a West Bank state is established. Jordan’s Palestinian problem is demographic in nature. It can’t allow the Palestinians to hold important positions within its own security establishment. Those vital roles are held by loyal East Bankers. Yet Jordan also relies heavily on those same Palestinians as a crucial segment of its all-important entrepreneurial class. For Jordan, the Palestinian issue has always been a delicate balancing act. A completely independent Palestinian state on the West Bank is the last thing Jordan wants. Although the King advocates for such a state, he only does so because he knows Israel would never accept it. Such a state could only be a magnet for rebellion within his own kingdom. At this stage, the Oslo stalemate suits the King’s interest. However, not everyone in the royal family agrees. Sooner or later, the Jordanian demographic time bomb is bound to explode. The hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees don’t help matters. Jordan is a poor country, and economic inequality can only work to exacerbate already existing tensions between communities. Every Jordanian monarch has walked a tightrope between the Palestinians and the tribesmen. Because of this, every Jordanian monarch has had to decide whether to make the political crossover of the Jordan River.
Like Israel, a “sovereignty minus” solution would serve the King’s interest. But the Palestinians are not buying into the concept. They have their own agenda. Within the triangular context, the Palestinians envision complete control of the Jordan Valley. The Palestinians know they must accept a demilitarized state. Arafat knew that going into Oslo. But the border with Jordan is key for the Palestinians. Without control of the border, any kind of elasticity is virtually impossible. A loose border westward could become another Gaza, only worse. The West Bank sits literally on top of Tel Aviv. In other words the metropolitan core of Israel would be within a few kilometer’s range of Palestine. Of course Palestine as a demilitarized state would not risk war with Israel, but the Palestinians are playing for the long game. They are waiting for the day that the regional balance of power shifts in some dramatic way. This was the reason that Arafat supported Saddam in the first Gulf war. If Saddam had been allowed to take over Kuwait, he could also have taken over Jordan. The Palestinians can be very patient at this point. Like France during Europe’s 17th century sectarian war, it certainly would be in the Palestinians’ interest to support the opposite sect. In this case, it would be Shia Iran in the Middle East’s current regional strife. When you play the long game, the key is to get Israel off the Jordan Valley.
Nevertheless, it is the political economy of Jordan-Palestine that dooms the two-state solution to delusion. From a political point of view, a functional democracy on the West Bank will activate further the democratic impulse on the East Bank. The elastic border could become a transit for rebellion, either violent or non-violent. A near absolute monarchy with a Palestinian majority living directly across a small river from a democratic or Islamic Palestine is manifestly unworkable. Either the monarchy will be forced to expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, or they will have to enfranchise them into what would become a second Palestinian state. Two Palestinian states living on both sides of the Jordan River would be tantamount to “Greater Palestine”. In this scenario, unless the King controls the political process on both banks, events might strip him of any control at all.
In economic terms, the viability of a coherent West Bank economy without some connection to Jordan is limited. The West Bank Palestinian population is currently on the dole. How long this will last is anyone’s guess. Yet, for any peace scenario to work, the Palestinians must have a working economy. An East Bank-West Bank economic confederation is a necessity. But economic confederation will also induce a need and a desire for some type of political unity. Therein lies the rub. Economics and politics go hand in hand. The complete separation of the two banks will be next to impossible.
At this point the monarchy hasn’t bought into this thesis, but that is only because Oslo has not borne any fruit. It is stuck. “Sovereignty minus” will probably never come to fruition. The Palestinians have vetoed both Jordan’s and Israel’s designs for an autonomy-like solution. On the other hand, Israel and Jordan will never accept the Palestinian desire for step-by-step control on both sides of the river. The entire process breaks down at the border. A Palestinian entity without any control of its Jordan River border is not much of a magnet for the East Bank Palestinians or West Bankers. At the same time, Israel has no choice but to continue its Jordan Valley security zone. Meanwhile, the King watches the regional balance of power shift with the same trepidation as the other Gulf state monarchies. Is it any wonder that the Oslo Accords remain frozen in their never-ending interim phase? The process can’t go forward, yet the status-quo is uncertain. It might last for years, or it might unravel soon. The great delusion is that the so-called two-state solution is, in actuality, a three-state stalemate on the periphery of a regional war.