Is Jordan Stable?

What does the arcane world of macro-economic theory have in common with Israel’s strategic military position? The answer lies in the stability-instability thesis. I first heard of this theory while listening to a lecture by Martin Wolf of London’s Financial Times newspaper. Wolf is recognized as one of the foremost economic analysts in the world; his recent book, “The Shift and the Shocks”, is predicting another global financial meltdown. According to Wolf, the stability of an economy over a period of time holds, within its very success, the seeds of its own destruction. Once the economic perception of continuous stability and growth becomes the established wisdom, people tend to take chances. The longer the time period of stability, the greater the amount of chances that are taken. As more chance enters the system, the likelihood of instability increases. Eventually the perception of the economic glass shifts from “half full” to “half empty”, and panic ensues.

Some economists call this subtle change of perception leading to the panic as the “Minsky Moment”. Named after famed Jewish economist Hyman Minsky (1919-1996), this theory posits that events leading up to the panic are rarely discerned, because of a bias toward excessive optimism caused by the perceived stability within the system. This leads us back to the question of Jordan and the established wisdom of both the Oslo paradigm and its long-time antecedent within the Israeli Labor Party, the Jordanian Option.

For the Israeli far-Left, when it comes to Jordan, the glass is always half-full. Since 1919 and the days of the Faisal-Weizmann agreement, Jordan and its ruling Hashemite family have been tacit allies with both the Jewish community of Palestine (the Yishuv) and (after 1948) with the State of Israel. These facts are well documented through a series of secret and not-so-secret meetings held over the years. Some of these meetings even occurred during war time. One of the most famous was between Golda Meyerson (changed to Meir) and King Abdullah I (brother of Faisal) on the eve of the 1948 war. It was at this meeting, and under the firm directive of David Ben-Gurion, that Israel vowed it would not contest Jordan’s military takeover of the West Bank, with assurance that the king would not press his army any further west. Although there was no formal deal, a firm understanding had been created. This understanding and tacit agreement later morphed into what became known as the Jordanian Option.

What is little understood or appreciated (especially among Middle East experts in the Liberal Washington D.C. think tanks) is that, from 1919 onward, the political question as to the future of Palestine had always been a three-way affair. What appears completely forgotten by today’s established wisdom is that there have always been two Arab claimants to the various parts of the original Palestine Mandate. These claimants are the Palestinian National Movement and the Hashemite Royal dynasty of what is now called Jordan. The Hashemites, based in the eastern district of the Palestinian Transjordan, were originally a British protectorate and have always enjoyed vast military support from the Anglo-American alliance. But unlike the indigenous Palestinians, the Hashemites were always pragmatic and understood that as outsiders to Palestine (they originated from the Hijaz in Arabia), they still needed local allies. So while the Palestinian National Movement never agreed to any Jewish national rights in the disputed mandated territory (not even in a bi-national state), the kings of Jordan established an understanding to secretly “cooperate” with the fledgling Israeli state.

What was called Jordan (after 1948) consisted of both the East Bank and the West Bank of the Jordan River. Only the UK and Pakistan formally recognized Jordan’s illegal occupation of the West Bank. Israel was a mere nine miles wide and could be traversed by a brisk two-hour hike or an incredibly short seven-minute drive in an automobile. From 1948 until the war in 1967, Israel was under constant threat of annihilation by the armies of the Arab world. The sole Arab exception to this dire threat directed at the Jewish state was from Jordan and its Hashemite dynasty. But Jordan had its own severe problems absorbing a vast majority Palestinian population. Time after time, Palestinian terrorists crossed the “Green Line” into Israel in order to kill and maim innocent civilians. Even given its tacit understanding with Israel, Jordan could do little to prevent Palestinian attacks on Israelis. In those days, there was no pretense of “settlements” and “settlers”; all of Israel was a “settlement” and all Jews were “settlers”. Tel Aviv was “occupied territory”, and the Palestinian game plan was the complete liberation of all the land of Palestine, including Jordan. Remember Arafat’s Fatah was created in 1959, and the PLO established in 1964 at Nasser’s Arab League summit in Cairo. This was a full three years before the 1967 war and the Israeli military advances on the West Bank.

Israel was not the aggressor in 1967. Jordanian history (and eventually UN Security Council Resolution 242) proves this fact. Jordan was severely bullied by Nasser into breaking its tacit agreement with Israel and taking up the fight against Israel. But Jordan was isolated and could do little to stop the Arab nationalists and Palestinians hell-bent on Israel’s destruction. And for a three-week period in May and June, Arab intentions were clear and precise: Israel was to be destroyed and her people murdered in a last genocidal battle. As a young man then, I remember those weeks leading up to the war; nearly every Jew in America was ready to get on the next plane so that the Jewish people would not experience a second Holocaust at the hands of the Arab armies and their myriad of ex-Nazi military advisers.

But somehow Israel survived. A one-time only preemptive air strike saved the Jewish people from a three-front war that Israel probably couldn’t have won. And with the defensive Israeli occupation of the Palestinian communities east of the Green Line, the Israeli Labor Party looked toward Jordan and the Jordanian Option to reestablish political control over the Palestinians. The only thing Israel wanted was security in exchange for a peace treaty with Jordan. This was the post-June 1967 basis of the Jordanian Option. The question remained as to Israel’s military border with Jordan. Israeli military planners understood that a repeat of the “miracle” of the 1967 war would not be possible because the element of surprise could never again be achieved. But Jordan insisted on a complete withdrawal of all Israelis from the West Bank in exchange for peace. This made a secure peace treaty impossible, and over a period of twenty years, Jordan and Palestine competed as to who represented the Arab people of the West Bank.

This competition ended with the Oslo Accords. Israel established direct contact with the PLO, and the Jordanian Option took on a whole new guise. The new variant to the option was to squeeze a Palestinian mini-state onto the West Bank, demilitarize it, not allow it to completely control its border, confederate its economy east and west, and most importantly, never allow for democracy to be established in Jordan. This is the essence of the Oslo version of the Jordanian Option — in other words, permanent Hashemite control of Jordan in a confederation with a mini West Bank Palestinian state. Talk about a stability-instability thesis, here is the perfect political example: Israel’s long-term belief that Jordanian stability would be a permanent feature of the political landscape. But how can you confederate a potential West Bank democracy, (and nearly everyone acknowledges that is what the Oslo Accords envisioned for the territory) with a minority monarchy east of the river? Remember: more than 65% of East Bank Jordanian citizens are ethnic Palestinian. It would be in Palestine’s long-term interest to establish a democracy in the West Bank and begin to call for a new democratic constitution east of the river.

Oslo has lasted over twenty-one years. Three separate negotiations involving three distinct Israeli governments (Left, Center and Right) have all failed to seal the deal. In all three negotiations, control of the border was a major sticking point. Even the Labor Party (under Ehud Barak) would not take such a chance with Israel’s security. But even with this caveat, the Israeli far-Left continues to play the role of true believer. The stability of Jordan is never doubted. The fact is that the monarchy must be envisioned as permanently stable, or the Oslo paradigm cannot hold up to scrutiny. And because the Israeli Right believed neither in the good intentions of the PLO nor in the future stability of the Jordanian monarchy, facts on the ground took precedence over the far-Left and Washington’s naivete. The extreme chances Israel would have to take to meet the PLO’s demands were never really considered in the interest of peace.

For the vast majority of Israelis, gambling on the stability of Jordan’s future is far from a stable proposition. In fact, the gamble itself would most likely bring on instability. The Right is far too smart to fall for the PLO’s “salami tricks”. Israel cannot return to the 1967 “suicide lines”. But the long-held assumptions of the Israeli far-Left remain — that Jordan and Israel will always have a tacit understanding, that the Jordanian monarchy will always be stable, and that another round of Oslo negotiations will somehow be successful. Even the Jordanian monarchy itself knows that this is not true. So does the PLO. And while the PLO must decide on its next course of action (apparently at the UN), Jordan gets nervous when even the slightest rumor circulates that the PLO might abandon the “right of return” to Israel for the 1948 Palestinian refugees in any future peace accord. What are the Jordanians most worried about? The answer is simple — their own stability, of course. The King of Jordan understands that he is a minority in his own kingdom. Unlike others, he’s no fool.

But the Israeli far-Left is so certain that Jordan (as it has been perceived for all these years) is such a bastion of stability that nothing can change. So certain is the far-Left of this assumption, that for the sake of this false peace, it might even allow Palestine to control its Jordan River border with the fragile monarchy to the east. If that were to happen, panic would set-in; the glass would become half empty, the Minsky Moment would arrive, the stability-instability thesis would prove itself correct, and Israel could face Palestine and her certain ally, Iran. And where would the new battlefield be? It would be on the very outskirts of Tel Aviv, of course. Financial meltdown is one thing. A military catastrophe (a Jewish Nakba) is a far more horrible prospect. The Jewish people never want to live through the uncertainty of May and early June 1967 again.

Is Jordan stable? The more the far-Left thinks so, the less it is true.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).