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July 11, 2007 No.

24

Jordanian-Palestinian Confederation:
An Idea Whose Time Has Not Come

Shlomo Brom

According to some observers, the phoenix of Jordanian-Palestinian confederation


seems to have risen from the ashes. Discussion of this issue has revived following the
crisis in the Palestinian Authority which peaked with the violent takeover of the Gaza
Strip by Hamas. That crisis has deepened the Israeli-Palestinian impasse because it
manifested the Palestinians’ inability to advance toward a resolution of the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict and aroused some nostalgia for the days before the Palestinian
national movement moved to center-stage, when the fate of the Palestinians was
determined by Arab states, especially Egypt and Jordan. At first, the feeling took the
form of proposals, especially by Israelis, that Egypt and Jordan send forces to restore
order in Gaza and the West Bank and create the conditions for political progress.
More recently, it has been expressed in the idea of confederation.
The idea of confederation was first raised in 1972 and resurfaced several times
in the years since King Hussein decided in 1988 to sever links with the West Bank
and recognize the PLO as the body responsible for the population there. The
Jordanians never rejected the idea outright but did always stress that confederation
can come about only if the Palestinians want it and that it can therefore be discussed
only after an independent Palestinian state has come into being. Now, however,
confederation is being considered from the outset as an alternative to a Palestinian
state.
This version of the idea appears to have gathered momentum because of the
conjuncture of two developments stemming from the Palestinian crisis. One is
growing Jordanian concern at the possibility that the crisis will spill over into Jordan,
in the form of a stream of Palestinian refugees. Those refugees would join the huge
number of refugees from Iraq entering Jordan in recent years. They are already
placing a strain on Jordanian infrastructure, but they do not constitute a truly heavy
burden because Jordan has taken plains to allow only Sunnis with means to enter.
From the regime’s point of view, Palestinian refugees would be a more serious
problem because they would lack their own resources and would threaten to upset the
delicate demographic balance between East Bank Jordanians and those of Palestinian
origin.
Jordanian concerns have provoked public debate about the ramifications of the
Palestinian crisis that has reverberated in Jordanian media. Former Prime Minister,
Abd as-Salam Majali, has played a central role in this debate by proposing
confederation as a way to bypass the crisis and move toward a solution. At a certain
point, the impression emerged that the entire debate was actually initiated by the
Hashemite regime, for which Majali was the messenger. In any case, the debate has
also found echoes in the Israeli and American media. The high point was reached
when an Internet site published a report, entirely without foundation, to the effect that
Majali visited Israel as King Abdullah’s emissary in order to present to Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert a Jordanian peace plan based on the reunification of the West Bank with
Jordan.
The second development is growing enthusiasm in the Palestinian population
of the West Bank for greater Jordanian involvement, which is reflected in various
public opinion polls. For example, the poll by the Ramallah-based PCPSR in June
showed 42% in favor of confederation with Jordan now or after the establishment of
an independent Palestinian state. A similar number supported the dismantling of the
Palestinian Authority. Support for the idea that Jordan should transfer to the West
Bank the Badr Brigade of the Palestinian Liberation Army in order to strengthen the
Fatah-controlled government also reinforced the perception of Palestinian
endorsement of greater Jordanian involvement, since the Badr Brigade is essentially
part of the Jordanian Army.
However, the bubble burst when King Abdullah gave interviews to Jordanian
newspapers in early July in which he focused on the Palestinian issue and attacked
with unprecedented severity the idea of confederation. Referring to what he called
“American and Israeli pressure on Jordan to retake responsibility for the West Bank,”
Abdullah said: “I’m fed up with talk about this issue … Our position is clear and well-
known … We reject the idea of confederation or federation. Any such proposal at this
time is a conspiracy against both Palestine and Jordan… Only after there is a
Palestinian state on Palestinian soil can Jordanians and Palestinians decide on the
nature of relations between them.” In short, it is clear that the “Jordanian solution” to
the problem of the territories, which was buried in 1988, has not been resurrected.
Jordan’s primary objective is to preserve the integrity of the state and the
regime in a situation in which it is surrounded by stronger states and, more recently,
by chronic crises (Iraq and the PA) that threaten to export problems to Jordan. Jordan
relates to the West Bank, not as territory lost in 1967 that should be regained, but
rather as an area that projects permanent threats to Jordan’s existence, especially the
threat to the demographic balance and the idea, popular on the Israeli right, that
Jordan is Palestine. Reunification of the two banks in current circumstances would
mean that Jordan would lose the separate character and independent identity it has
managed to formulate and would be transformed into a Palestinian state. That
explains the King’s acerbic comments. But he also fears that the Israel and the United
States are unwilling to do what is necessary in order to promote a settlement of the
Palestinian problem and want to throw the ball into Jordan’s court.
From Israel’s perspective, all this means that there is no reason to expect
greater Jordanian involvement beyond the known parameters of assistance and
training and equipping Mahmoud Abbas’ forces and agreeing to transfer the Badr
Brigade to the West Bank. In Jordanian eyes, the movement of Palestinians from
Jordan to the West Bank rather than the other way around is a welcome change.