As Kerry prepares to sell a framework agreement that will outline U.S. proposals for a two-state solution, many here fear that peace will come at the expense of a weak, pliable, indebted Jordan and that nothing will come of the long-held Palestinian demand for refugees’ “right of return” to homes they left when Israel became a state in 1948.
About 3 million people in Jordan today, fully half the total population, are of Palestinian origin, including King Abdullah II’s wife, Queen Rania. Though most Palestinians here hold residency cards, Jordanian passports or even full Jordanian citizenship, more than 2 million are also registered by the United Nations as “refugees,” those who fled Israel after the 1948 war as well as three generations of their descendants. About one in five still live in refugee camps, which, after 65 years, now resemble slums.
Many Palestinians here would like at least the right, if not the reality, to return to a new Palestinian state, or to be compensated by Israel or the international community for their losses. Some want to go back to their home towns in Israel, a state many have never seen.
Many Jordanians just want the Palestinians to go, period.
Abdullah is scheduled to meet with President Obama on Friday in California, and a spokesman for the Jordanian Foreign Ministry said the agenda will include the possible repercussions of a peace deal on Jordan.
These are perilous times for the monarch. Lacking oil, short on water and overwhelmed by Syrian refugees, Jordan is burdened with more than $25 billion in public debt and suffering through an economic crisis. A few pennies’ rise in the cost of electricity, tobacco or fuel can send protesters into the streets.
Now a remarkable cross section of Jordanian society is warning the king and his government to refuse any peace plan that does not satisfy what Jordan calls its “highest interests,” namely the incredibly thorny issue of the rights of Palestinian refugees.
Many Jordanians have never fully accepted the Palestinians, who do not enjoy equal access to government jobs, university scholarships and military service. In the parliament, laws are rewritten every election cycle to ensure that Palestinians are underrepresented.
“This is a big problem for poor Mr. Kerry. I don’t know what he is going to do,” said Abdul Hadi Majali, a former Jordanian ambassador to the United States and a leader of a prominent tribe that controls a large bloc in the parliament.
“There are many Jordanians who say this is our country, we’ve shared all our assets, we’ve shared political power and seats in parliament and offices in the palace. But now it is time for a solution,” he said. “You hear people asking: Why are the Palestinians still here?”
Lawmaker Mohammad al-Qatatsha said Abdullah was briefed on the framework proposals this week by Kerry, who told him Israel would not accept any of the 3.8 million Palestinian refugees, according to the Palestinian news agency Maan.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly said they will not let any large number of Palestinians return to Israel, because they would diminish the Jewish majority. How many Palestinians would be welcome in a new Palestinian state is unknown.
Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns was here recently, assuring leaders that Jordan is being consulted. Burns told reporters, “One of the biggest challenges in making progress not just toward a framework but toward a permanent status solution is to develop a just and agreed solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.”
Jordan’s lower house of parliament issued a statement last week rejecting Israel’s demand to be recognized as a “Jewish state” and stressing that any deal must include the right of return and compensation for countries that have hosted refugees.
“Whoever thinks Jordan will become someone’s alternative state is delusional,” Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told the parliament, an allusion to anxieties here that the United States will pressure Jordan to naturalize all the Palestinians on its soil and take in Palestinian refugees now living under far worse conditions in Lebanon and Syria.
Leaders of the Islamist opposition movement here are staging demonstrations in support of the Palestinians and have seized upon the emotionally charged issue to challenge the royal court.
“The Americans wish to solve the Palestinian problem at Jordanian expense, and if that happens, if the government gives in to the demands of the United States, this will threaten the regime,” said Hamza Mansour, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party in Jordan.
Complications of history
The Islamists are finding common cause with tribal power brokers as well as former military officers, who represent Jordan’s most nationalistic voices. The two groups have traditionally been loyal to the king, and analysts say their primary concern is not the fate of Palestinians but their own, more privileged position in Jordanian society.
They fear that under U.S. pressure, Palestinians in Jordan will remain here forever, transforming what they hoped would be temporary refuge into irrevocable citizenship. The U.S. government gives Jordan about $1 billion a year in assistance.
The politics surrounding the Palestinian refugees is complicated by Jordan’s history and demographics. Members of the original Bedouin tribes who fought in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire a century ago, recorded and romanticized by British officer T.E. Lawrence, formed the core of the newly born Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. They see themselves as the true “Jordanian Jordanians,” a term they use interchangeably with “East Bankers” to set themselves apart from the Palestinians of the West Bank, which Jordan controlled between 1948 and 1967.
“There is no way we would consider the Palestinian refugees as Jordanians, even if they carry national identification cards, or Jordanian passports, even if they are Jordanian citizens,” said Ali Habashneh, a retired general and leader of the National Committee for Retired Officers in Jordan.
Habashneh made an unmistakable threat to the monarchy. “If this plan comes to fruition,” he said, “we will return the power to the people.”
In the Baqaa camp outside Amman, where about 80,000 Palestinian refugees live, Ibrahim Arabaty, a community leader and teacher, said the prospect of a peace deal inspired longing and dread. He worried that Jordan was not strong enough — or welcoming enough — to protect his rights as a refugee in the long run.
“Laws are temporary,” he said. “With a stroke of a pen, Jordan can withdraw my citizenship, my investments, my property.” He called the mood in the camp “explosive, unfortunately.”
Taylor Luck contributed to this report.