In Arabic, there is an adage, “bid-dak il-in-nab wil-la tqaa-tel in-nna-toor?” “Do you want the grape, or do you want to fight with the [vineyard] watchman?”
Last week Jordan, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed the largest-ever energy and water cooperation agreement since the neighbours signed a peace treaty in 1994 to trade solar energy and desalinated water. This is also the most significant current renewable energy initiative in the Middle East. The states have liaised on the gas agreement in the past in which natural gas will be supplied from Israel to Jordan for 15 years from the field in the Mediterranean. Similarly, if realized to its full potential, the water-energy deal could cause a marked change diplomatically and scientifically for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, weathering the worst repercussions of climate change and likely to further amplify migration and the risk of conflict in years ahead. Though this may not have an extraordinary impact on global climate change mitigation, it will continue to strengthen Jordan’s effort to adapt successfully to climate change. The diplomatic, institutional, and financial innovations can be combined to give birth to partnership agreements. However, it is too soon to infer which side would genuinely benefit from the deal – strategically.
The energy deal is the result of intense tripartite negotiations, brokered by UAE owing to its own interests in the region. The Abraham Accords, engineered by the United States in August 2020 to reset Israel’s ties with wealthy Arab states- UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, allowed Israel enough ground to expand its influence rather overtly. The UAE, in its attempt to redefine its standing on a better strategic footing, actively sought American help to make these inroads and led the dialogue efforts to bridge the gap between Amman and Tel Aviv. Evidently, John Kerry, US Climate envoy, oversaw the agreement’s signing. Using Emirati financial and technical weight, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company aka Masdar, a UAE-government owned renewable energy company based in Abu Dhabi would streamline the construction of the “Prosperity Green,” that is, construction of photovoltaic solar generation and storage facilities in Jordan, with the capacity to export 600 megawatts of energy to Israel. It is expected to generate two per cent of Israel’s energy over the next decade. The valuation decided upon to sell electricity generated to Israel is USD 180 million annually, of which UAE’s energy company will share the dividends with Jordan. As a reciprocal action, Israel’s commitments entail “Prosperity Blue,” selling 200 million cubic metres of desalinated water from its Mediterranean coast to Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom, a water-scarce country grappling with severe droughts, can benefit hugely from the abovementioned water supply. Another goodwill gesture would allow Jordan’s potential exports to the West Bank to grow from about $160m to $700m annually.
Saudi Arabia: The saboteur
The Virginia-based news website Axios, citing Israeli officials and an anonymous source, reported that Saudi Arabia tried to sabotage the water-energy deal by compelling UAE to abandon it. The report stated that Riyadh was so eager to lead the agreement that it proposed an alternative arrangement, in collaboration with the UAE and Jordan, without Israel.
Abu Dhabi refused to give in to the Saudi’s demand (though not entirely as it had to make some cosmetic changes to the agreement). Under the US’s watch, it orchestrated the agreement clearly driven by economic interests rather than transnational politics. Naturally, it angered the Saudis as the deal, in a way, undercut Mohammed bin Salman to lead climate efforts through his grand plan of a “Green Middle East.”
Ghosts of the past
This signals that the two sides are attempting to normalize relations after years of Jordan’s strained ties with its counterpart under former Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu. King Abdullah II did not have friendly relations with the Israeli Prime Minister. He did not grant permission to the latter to use Jordanian air space to fly to UAE in his first-ever trip to the Gulf state.
The Kingdom has always been wary of Israel’s proximity to the West hence, it has treaded cautiously during the reign of King Abdullah. Jordan’s monarchy is profoundly sympathetic to the large Palestinian population it hosts and ensuing political issues—an element that deters a warm peace with the Israeli government. In fact, when the news broke about the agreement, many Jordanians openly protested, stating their obvious demand to quash the deal. They believe that the deal is a facade to build “the appropriate environment” to force Palestinian-Jordanians to be dominated by Israel eventually. It is a stride closer to coercing former US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favour of Israel.
It, therefore, became imperative for the current ruling monarch to mend and keep relations with Israel afloat, however cold they be, and to ensure it continues to receive the US funding assistance (totalling more than $17.3 billion in foreign aid since 1946), greatly influenced by the pro-Israel lobby in the US Congress. At the same time, Jordan’s monarch has to maintain a delicate balance between administering an extensive patronage system while carrying out a tough economic reform program to take control of rising public debt of $45 billion and unemployment, which is an all-time high at 25%.
Following Egypt’s steps, Jordan signed the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. This was instrumental in reaffirming the Hashemite King’s custodianship of Jerusalem Muslim and Christian holy sites- preserved in Article 10 of the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. This has acted as a principal basis of the Jordan monarchy’s legitimacy. Although the neighbours have maintained close security ties and intelligence cooperation, relations remain tense in recent times over violation of the fragile status quo at the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque site, Israel’s relentless policy of expanding illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian lands, and the apparent lag in the waning peace process.
Both Jordan and the Palestinians outright rejected the Trump administration’s Middle East Peace plan, which would have lawfully recognized Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory as part of the country. Israel annexed East Jerusalem and captured the West Bank from Jordan during the Six-Day war in 1967, naturally infuriating Palestinians who see the occupied territories as an inevitable part of their future state.
Current dynamics in the region
A water resource agreement was a significant part of the 1994 peace deal, but relations between the two states frayed until the current ruling Nafteli Bennett’s coalition government took over from its predecessor. Reportedly, there was a secret meeting held between Bennett and King Abdullah in Amman in July 2021, full details of which were not revealed in the public domain. Bennett’s warming ties with King Abdullah has largely established that security and economic cooperation between the two sides should try to replace ‘cold peace’ with, perhaps, strategic partnership?
Despite the recent goodwill between Abdullah and Bennett, there continues to remain large cavities that dissuade the governments from establishing warm relations. Consequently, Jordan has always downplayed its cooperation with the country, even though other Arab states such as the UAE and Bahrain have openly acknowledged their ties with Israel in recent times.
While invariably Jordan responds to Israel’s policies and actions austerely, especially when it comes to the oppression of Palestinians, its fiery rhetoric has usually not lived up to its methods and approaches. The two sides share common concerns in the areas of intelligence cooperation that have continued since the Black September tragedy in 1970 when Jordan sought Israel’s military help in expelling Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) militants who used Jordan’s territory to launch attacks on Israel. Lately, the Israel military infrastructure has helped Amman secure its borders to fend off Islamic State extremists at the border with Syria. Thus, it has become highly challenging and complex for Jordan to revamp the tenets of its relationship with Israel and to surpass the ‘cold’ peace eventually.
Jordan’s long-standing claim of a peaceful two-state solution to establish a free and independent state of Palestine “based on the pre-1967 borders”, with undivided East Jerusalem as the capital, has consistently been characteristic of its foreign policy behaviour. However, recently appointed as the prime minister, Bennett is ‘more Right-wing’ than his predecessor and has vowed to block Palestinian statehood. He is the head of the ultra-nationalist party, Yamina and advocates for Israel’s absolute sovereignty over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. It is, needless to say, quite clear that Israel would not follow the policy of pacifying an aggrieved neighbour through negotiation in order to keep the latter appeased.
If Israel were to go as far as annexing all of the settlements in the Jordan Valley and West Bank, it would be detrimental to Jordan’s national security and the country could possibly be further pushed to dissolve its diplomatic ties with Israel. Notwithstanding, Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List and Nitzan Horowitz’s Meretz party also support Bennett’s ‘Government of Change’ so it is unlikely the patchwork coalition would embrace such startling decisions.
Ahead of the Game
Ever since signing the Abraham Accords, Israel’s regional and global standing have improved greatly- the government making faster progress than anticipated. Israel’s foreign policy, goes without saying, has developed and prospered with consummate diplomacy. Its value as a strategic asset for the majority of the Arab states has sprung up across the region to become, as they say in Hebrew, “like mushrooms after the rain.” Though it is widely believed that Iran’s containment and related military concerns necessitated conditions for the unprecedented Gulf-Israel grouping, other factors such as trade and economics have been overlooked and under-examined by foreign policy analysts and experts. Data shows that the value of trade between Israel and MENA countries surged by 234 per cent in the wake of the normalization of relations. Financial clout superseded geopolitical misgivings, ultimately setting the stage for rivals with deep-seated ideological differences to align and influence the more significant strategic imperatives in the region.
Though Jordan was not an official party to the Abraham Accords and was fundamentally ignored under Trump’s tenure, the country is now determined to chart its own course through informal and clandestine dialogues or, at times, under the disguise of climate-focused agreements with Israel. In the panorama, other oil-rich Gulf States have demonstrated to resource-deficient Jordan that the persistent taboo surrounding the ‘perceived’ Palestine’s future can undermine wider economics interests and rob them of potential lucrative economic partnerships. Israel’s ground-breaking normalization with part of the Arab world has also taught lessons to the Hashemite Kingdom that if bilateral relations are not spearheaded strategically, it will surely be side-lined in the Washington-driven regional interests. Hence, the nature and scope of ties with Israel must be expanded albeit more cautiously than its other regional neighbours given the country’s sensitive geography and demographics, which may erupt into a domestic conflict-like situation if not handled well.
Hence, Jordan’s foreign policy aims should stem from the independent need to get on top of its weakening economic and security position to “balance” its adversarial neighbour through tactful, diplomatic engagement both bilaterally and regionally- killing two birds with one stones. The times have changed, and strategic landscapes are redrawn in which collective “Arab” identity is left behind in the Gulf States’ pursuit of growing rapprochement with Israel. Jordan, too would have to jump on the bandwagon and establish deeper ties with Israel in order to define itself as an asset in the broader regional posture, sooner rather than later.
Author: Shruti Punia
Policy Analyst, Ministry of Commerce and Industry
Government of India