A Plan B for Jordan
By Mudar Zahran, STONEGATE INSTITUTE Sept 2011
The King of Jordan, Abdullah II, delivered a speech on September 11, in which he mentioned the Jordanian civil war of 1970 for the first time ever: “There are not any issues we are too embarrassed to discuss, even if there is someone who wants to discuss the incidents of 1970, this is a part of history; let us think of the future and not the past.”
Commenting on the fear of Jordan’s Bedouin minority — who make up the king’s military and are the protected class — that Jordan might become the Palestinian majority’s homeland — a plan dubbed “the alternative homeland” by the local media — the king said: “I would like to assure everyone that Jordan will not be an alternative country to anyone. Is it even logical that Jordan will become an alternative to anyone while we sit there and do nothing? We have an army and we are willing to fight for our country and for the future of Jordan, and we must speak vigorously and not ever allow this idea to remain in the minds of some of us….We have fought Israel before many times.”
“Jordan and the future of Palestine,” he added, “are much stronger than Israel today; the Israeli is the one who is afraid….When I was in the United States, I spoke to an Israeli intellectual; he told me that what was happening in Arab countries today is in the interests of Israel. I told him, ‘I think it is the opposite: your situation today is much harder than before.’”
King Abdullah also mentioned the need to address the issue of “national identity” in Jordan — a phrase associated with isolating the Palestinians, who make up 80% of the population, in favor of the Beduin minority, for whom he would establish Jordan as a purely Bedouin state: “We must speak with a loud voice about the Jordanian identity,” he said, “yet national unity is a red line.” In other words, the king openly supports talk about imposing a Jordanian Bedouin identity on the country, while at the same time prohibiting any “unity” with the Palestinians — a notion he had previously denounced.
The king, in his speech, was using a common Arab political trick of saying an undesired thing to the public — reminding the Palestinians of the civil war in which they were slaughtered — and then, in the same sentence, ostensibly defusing the threat of another slaughter by adding that he would spare the Palestinians so long as they accept the situation as is, where they are citizens, but still treated as refugees and outsiders in every way.
Although it is common for Arab regimes that are pro-Western to talk tough about the US and Israel every now and then — to rally their people behind them by threatening these cost-free targets, and thereby divert anger away from their own repressive regimes onto other countries — this time the context was different: The King’s speech, aired on Jordanian national television, came two days after Wikileaks released several US Embassy, Amman, cables that described the testimonies of some Jordanian Palestinians officials who were complaining to Embassy officers about the discrimination against the Palestinians in Jordan. One cable, entitled, “The Grand Bargain,” mentioned a Palestinian political leader’s belief that the “right of return” was unfeasible – signifying the Palestinians’ willingness to accept a permanent home in Jordan –rather than in hoping to return to Israel, as the refugees and five generations of descendants are continually being promised — in exchange for finally attaining civil rights in Jordan.
The government-controlled Jordanian media expressed anger at the US Embassy — to the point of issuing calls for a protest against both the American and Israeli embassies in Amman, which they called “the espionage beehive.”
The King’s talk sounded provocative and terrorizing to the Jordanian Palestinians, who are already discriminated against and disenfranchised politically by the Hashemite regime. The Bedouin-dominated town of Kerak in Southern Jordan, for example, has ten parliamentary seats for fewer than 150,000 voters, while the Palestinian-dominated Amman has barely twenty parliamentary seats for three million voters.
What made matters especially threatening was the way Jordan’s Bedouins seem to have understood the King’s remarks. The King’s statement, for instance, that he would “not feel embarrassed to address any issue including the civil war,” seems to have been understood by the Bedouin military as permission to go out and target the Palestinians. Comments on Jordanian social websites, such as Facebook, appeared, with disturbing messages of incitement: Jordanian Bedouins began calling for violence against both Israel and the Palestinian majority. One of commentators said on Facebook: “We shall give the Palestinians another Black September,” said one, “only this time we will make it red.” Another said: “Those Palestinians are worse than Jews. I could never make out the difference. We will march to kick [the Palestinian] out [of Jordan] and we will knock down the Israeli embassy.” Still another said, “You do the killing, guys, just leave the hot Palestinian chicks for me; I will rape their little girls.” While this anti-Palestinian sentiment is not new in Jordan, after the King’s speech it reached a new extreme.
It seemed as if the king was threatening Israel with a war, and the Palestinians in Jordan with a civil war. This perceived threat translated into protests: one against the American Embassy in Amman on September 15th, and one against the Israeli Embassy for Friday, September 16th. Both protests were called for and organized by Nahid Hattar, a Christian Bedouin writer, who has been calling for ousting the Palestinians from Jordan, and who has openly admitted his direct one-on-one connection to the former chief of the Jordanian Intelligence Department while the latter was in office.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs withdrew its ambassador and staff from the Embassy following the call for the protest. Several leaders of Palestinian refugee camps claimed they issued orders for their youngsters not to participate in protests against both embassies; eventually, the turnout rate at both events was low. Al-Jazeera TV reported tens of Muslim Brotherhood protesters opposite the American embassy on September 15th, while the Washington Post reported only around 200 protestors are expected against the Israeli embassy for September 16th. If this is a sign the Palestinians in Jordan’s refugee camps have matured in their view of Israel, it is too early to tell.
The author has been receiving reports from Palestinian refugee camps’ leaders, claiming that the government was arming the Bedouin Jordanian tribes, and handing out machine-guns to them — allegedly along with anti-Palestinian incitement. These reports, whether true or not, indicate how fragile the situation is. The same fragility was also noted by Israeli officials, who reported that “Jordan is in an extremely precarious state and effectively hanging by a thread.”
King Abdullah’s threats of using his military to confront Israel are most likely hollow. Although he surely realizes he could not overpower Israel by force, as his grandfather and father tried to in 1947 and 1967, it is possible he believes he is in a stronger position than a few months ago, since Israel has lost significant allies in Egypt and Turkey, and therefore might feel more isolated, or regard its friendship with Jordan as more precious than ever. Or perhaps the king believes he has a Palestinian demographic card to play against Israel in his repeated emphasis on the “right of return” for his Palestinians, as he revealed in an interview on Israel’s Channel 2, when he said Israel would have no clear future because of the demographic “challenge.”
King Abdullah has also been placing demographic pressure on Israel, threatening to overrun it with Arabs, by stripping his Palestinians of their citizenships and ordering them to go “home to Palestine,” meaning Israel, in what Human Rights Watch has described as a random and irregular manner. Human Rights Watch described stripping Palestinians in Jordan of their nationalities as “Jordan playing politics with its citizens’ basic rights.” The list of victims of this anti-Palestinian policy includes surgeons, academics, schoolchildren, and housewives. According to two reports by Human Rights Watch, Palestinians who have never been to Israel have found themselves with no Jordanian nationality, and often no nationality of any kind.
King Abdullah’s situation should serve as a reminder that the status quo of Jordan is not necessarily sustainable. Although some might not like it, and others might wish it to remain forever, with the Arab Spring sweeping away much stronger regimes, such as that of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, it could be wishful thinking to assume that Jordan will stay the way it is.
It is not certain that King Abdullah’s regime will be able to survive a revolt from the frustrated and angry Palestinian majority should one take place; or possibly even a revolt from the heavily-armed Bedouins who recently seem to have been acquiring a dislike for the Westernized king, and issuing public statements against him for over a year.
Should Abdullah be toppled tomorrow, does the United States have anyone prepared to speak with Jordan’s non-Islamist Palestinians, who have been dominating the pro-reform protests, such as March 24th Movement? Or will the United States just accept anti-American Bedouins and Palestinians taking over Jordan?
It might be time to start at least considering a Plan B for Jordan — just in case.