AMMAN, Jordan — As the United States gears up for an economic summit in Bahrain this week touted as the first phase in the Trump administration’s plan to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Jordan has been thrust into a predicament.
How does it accommodate the skepticism of ordinary Jordanians over the Trump initiative without rankling key allies, the United States and Saudi Arabia, which provide Jordan with billions of dollars in vital economic aid? Can Jordan engage in the U.S.-sponsored process without being accused of selling out Palestinian political claims or risking fundamental Jordanian interests?
King Abdullah II, the country’s ruler, must walk that tightrope at a particularly sensitive time as economic discontent in Jordan deepens. In a sign of the government’s insecurity at the moment, Jordanian authorities have been cracking down on political and anti-corruption activists, trying to silence calls for political and economic reforms.
Although details of the U.S. peace plan have been closely held, reports about what it might entail have caused alarm in Jordan. The suggestion that Jordan might have to permanently absorb the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were forced to leave their homes after Israel’s creation in 1948 is highly sensitive. Today, more than half of Jordan’s 8 million citizens are estimated to be of Palestinian descent.
Jordan has long welcomed refugees — it has taken in an estimated 1.4 millions Syrians over the past nine years, on top of waves of Iraqis — but there is an increasing frustration that this open-door policy is coming at the expense of Jordanians descended from the kingdom’s original East Bank inhabitants.
For Jordan to cooperate with the U.S. peace plan is “suicidal” politically, said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian analyst and activist. “Jordan does not want to offend the Jordanians, but at the same time, they cannot oppose the Americans or the Saudis or the Gulf, so they will try to find a halfway solution.”
King Abdullah has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of any deal that does not provide for a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli state. He has also said that Jordan must be at the table at any meeting in which a Middle East peace process is discussed.
Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi reacted with anger after a White House official last week was quoted as confirming Jordan’s participation in the summit. If Jordan does attend, it will refuse any proposal that it deems unacceptable, he later said.
The Trump administration says the two-day “Peace to Prosperity” summit in Manama, Bahrain, starting Tuesday will present an economic vision of what could be achieved if the decades-old Israeli-Arab conflict is resolved, but it has yet to provide any details of what a political solution may be. Trump’s team, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, has broken with previous U.S. administrations and refrained from calling for a two-state solution.
Hind al-Fayez, a former Jordanian member of parliament and a government critic, echoed a common refrain among Jordanians and Palestinians that Jordan should not attend because “any relationship that is now between Israel, the Gulf and Trump is not for the sake of Jordan and Palestine.”
Despite the region’s tumultuous decade, Jordan has remained politically, economically and socially stable. That’s in part due to a delicate balancing between its East Bank Jordanian citizens, who have dominated public-sector jobs and the security services, and Palestinians originally from what is now the West Bank and Israel, who have thrived in the private sector.
This equation, however, has started to change over the past decade as the Jordanian government cut back on public jobs, salaries and resources and pushed to privatize more industries and services.
This has angered Jordanians such as Mohammed al-Sneid, 44, an agricultural engineer working for the government and a longtime labor activist from Dhiban, a water-short area south of Amman that was once rich farmland. Jordanian citizens of Palestinian descent deserve to have the same rights as he does, Sneid said, as they have married and integrated into Jordanian society. But the Palestinians in Jordan without citizenship, such as those from the Gaza Strip, should not get citizenship, he said, and neither should Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which he says he worries the Trump administration’s plan will include.
“We won’t become part of the conspiracy on Palestine” by giving Jordanian citizenship to Palestinians so that the world could forget they “have the right to return [to their ancestral homes] according to the United Nations,” he said.
Most Palestinian refugees in Jordan hold full citizenship and have the right to vote in elections, but their level of participation is the lowest in the country, said Hassan Barari, a professor at the University of Jordan and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
East Bank Jordanians fear that if Palestinians are officially absorbed — their “right of return” erased and the Palestinian file officially “closed” — they will exercise their full constitutional rights in Jordan and become a voting majority, he said.
“Jordanians have a siege mentality. They are afraid of the Palestinians becoming a vast majority,” he said. “The most important fear is over the identity of the state.”
Palestinians in Jordan are also apprehensive about the peace process. Khaled Ama’era, 36, a shop owner in Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp, said he would reject any money provided under the U.S. peace initiative if that means relinquishing the claim “that Palestine is our land.”
Stopping by Ama’era’s shop, Mohamed Ghazawi, 28, said he would support a deal — if it meant he could finally get Jordanian citizenship. Ghazawi’s family is originally from the Gaza Strip, so they did not qualify for citizenship in Jordan like those from the West Bank. That means he cannot work in a host of jobs reserved for Jordanian citizens, including journalism, which he studied, or buy property, among other restrictions.
Ghazawi works an overnight shift six days a week at a gas station, in addition to catering courses. He said he would take money related to the U.S. deal, but only on one condition.
“If I took the money, I wouldn’t keep it,” he said. “I wouldn’t take it to put in my pocket. … I’d open a broadcast station in the camp to connect the voice of the Palestinians.”