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Aidan Fishman

King Abdulla

Oded Eran, former Israeli Ambassador to the European Union

David Schenker, Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Aidan fishman: The View from Washington – Unrest in Jordan

Aidan Fishman, April 24, 2012

Back in March, I was fortunate to attend the annual Washington Policy Conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as a youth delegate of CJPAC, the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee.
   Although most of the swanky donors, eager lobbyists and ambitious media spin-doctors came to gawk at Obama and Netanyahu and dissect their tense relationship, I found more substance in a different aspect of the Conference. While suffering through mind-boggling security queues and awful food quality and distribution, I found time to enjoy the break-out sessions, reveling in the thorough examinations of concise topics led by the best experts in the field.
   In this article, the first in a three-part series, I will recount my experiences at “The Hashemite Kingdom: Turmoil and Change in Jordan,” bringing you the latest buzz from Capitol Hill.
   The breakout session began with comments from Oded Eran, former Israeli Ambassador to the European Union and, appropriately enough, Jordan. He began by defining himself as a “Jordanianist” - that is to say, a supporter of continued rule for Jordanian King Abdullah II and his Bedouin Hashemite dynasty, rather than democratic changes that would bring the kingdom's 65-80% Palestinian majority population to power.
   In general, Eran asserted that while Jordan is experiencing uncharacteristic turmoil, radical changes in the country are not on the cards in the near future. Nevertheless, he identified three current and growing threats to the monarchy's grip on power: criticism from within its traditional Bedouin base of support, the growing popularity of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, and unrest from the country's largely unrepresented Palestinian majority, who resent their virtual exclusion from the political process while they continue to sustain the nation's economy.
   The former Ambassador blamed Jordan's Bedouins for rashly arrogating more and more wealth for themselves, proclaiming their refusal to pay taxes to the state even as it reels from the global economic crisis. Unfulfilled promises of aid from the oil-rich Gulf States have aggravated this problem, forcing the United States to compensate Jordan for the shortfall. If Congressional Republicans succeed in blocking all or most foreign aid in the coming months, Eran predicted grave consequences for the kingdom's internal stability.
   At the same time, Eran credited King Abdullah with handling the rising Islamist threat better than any other state in the region. Although the Muslim Brotherhood holds weekly Friday protests in downtown Amman, violence has so far been avoided, in large part due to the police force's refusal to use live ammunition to quell the demonstrations. This wise restraint has forestalled the frenzied cycle of funerals and enraged mourners that has fueled unrest in Bahrain, Yemen and neighbouring Syria.
   To conclude, Eran addressed Jordan's “Palestinian problem”, the demographic dilemma that has defined much of its history. He noted that the kingdom has already absorbed four waves of Palestinian refugees: those stemming from the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, and smaller groups fleeing other regional conflagrations in 1967, 1991 and 2003. Now, the rebellion in Syria has forced thousands of Palestinians to flee that country's refugee camps, and Jordan is trying desperately to prevent them from settling within its borders.
    The former Ambassador highlighted the helpful nature of successive Israeli governments in tackling these issues, including harsh condemnations of right-wing Members of Knesset who have declared that “Jordan is Palestine”. In recent months, King Abdullah has brought in reforms that would give Palestinians roughly 15% of the seats in Jordan's Parliament – still wildly disproportionate to their share of the population.
    Next to speak was David Schenker, Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Although he was saddled with a tough act to follow, he managed to bring new content to the table, mainly surrounding the American Government's relationship with the Hashemite realm. He reported that Jordan  is the second-most favoured Middle Eastern nation on Capitol Hill, after Israel, of course. Indeed, support for Jordan constituted a rare consensus issue between the State and Defense Departments of the Bush Administration, and the kingdom is said to have received $1.4 billion in aid to manage the after-effects of the Invasion of Iraq.
   Schenker echoed his colleague in applauding King Abdullah's handling of the current tremors, including his dismissal of the ineffectual Prime Minister Samir al -Rifa'i and his replacement by first the mercurial Marouf al-Bakhit and then Awn Shawkat al-Khasawneh, a respected diplomat and former judge of the International Court of Justice. Schenker also noted that the King had cleverly chosen to empower Islamists in Parliament by abandoning the party list system while still short-changing Palestinians by gerrymandering electoral districts, effectively splitting the opposition to his rule. Nevertheless, he insisted that Jordan's biggest worry should be its 30% unemployment rate, not social or political reforms.
    The think-tank director clashed briefly with the former Ambassador by defending Saudi Arabia's spotty record vis-à-vis the Hashemite kingdom, arguing that “without the Saudis, Jordan would not have had an economy in 2011”. While sounding the alarm on structural economic woes and royal extravagance, Schenker too maintained that the Jordanian monarchy was highly unlikely to fall, citing a Saudi refusal to suffer the precedent of having an Arab monarch toppled by revolutionaries, and the role of Syria's ongoing humanitarian catastrophe as a cautionary tale of division and violent unrest.
   The most exciting moments of the breakout session came via fiery questions from the audience, who did not seem to share Eran's “Jordanianist” bent, to say the least. After laughing off the first few questions on the subject, the former Ambassador was compelled to explain why Jordan could not serve as the Palestinian state, as a replacement for Palestinian control over the West Bank and Gaza.
   Firstly, he pointed out that a Palestinian state on the East Bank of the Jordan River would inherit the Hashemites' stockpile of American-produced jets, tanks and artillery, probably offsetting any Israeli security gains accrued by controlling the hills of Judea and Samaria and their attendant strategic depth. Eran also warned of an arc of Muslim Brotherhood regimes stretching from Egypt to Jordan to Syria, threatening to encircle Israel as in the run-up to the Six-Day War. Finally, he noted that Palestinian control over the East Bank of the Jordan would not tame Palestinian nationalists on the West Bank, but rather provide them with a more sympathetic and destabilizing neighbour and ally.
   In response to other, tamer questions from the audience, Schenker noted that the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has insisted on boycotting previous elections, although polls show that it would win between 40% and 50% of the seats in Parliament. Intriguingly, he blamed Hamas's decision to move its administrative headquarters from Damascus to Cairo, rather than Amman, on internecine squabbles amongst Jordan's Islamists.
   Finishing on a tragic and foreboding note, he claimed that Palestinian children in Jordanian refugee camps are taught that they themselves were literally born in Israeli cities such as Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem and that these cities represent their eternal birthright, preventing their proper integration into Jordanian society and perpetuating the cycle of hatred and wild anti-Semitism that dominates the mindset of too many Palestinian refugees.
    As I left the session, clutching my pen and paper, I reflected on the wealth of information gleaned over the course of the past hour. Although some audience members exited the room ideologically disappointed, the two expert panelists had admirably stated their viewpoints and defended them very well. But in this age of Arab Revolutions, who can truly predict the future of any Middle Eastern regime?
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