Jordan’s King Abdullah II, in what has been described as a “sharp tone,” announced this week that he would annul an appendix to the 1994 Israeli/Jordanian peace treaty under which certain parcels of lands in the border regions—the Naharayim (Baqura) area near the Sea of Galilee and Zofar (al Ghamar), some 80 miles north of Eilat in the Aqaba region—were to have been leased to Israel in perpetuity.
Jews have farmed these lands since 1926, when the then-British Mandatory power authorized it, along with the establishment of a power station by Russian Jewish engineer Pinchas Rutenberg.
However, in 1994, when Israel and Jordan concluded a peace treaty, Israel transferred these territories to Jordanian sovereignty. An appendix in the treaty authorized continued Israeli cultivation of these farmlands for 25 years, automatically renewable for 25-year periods “unless one year prior notice of termination is given by either Party, in which case, at the request of either Party, consultations shall be entered into.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that he will be taking up the matter with King Abdullah in a bid to have the termination of the lease rescinded, but Oraib Rintawi, director of the Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, has said, probably accurately, “Jordan cannot backtrack on this. … This is a decision of the king, government and public. I do not believe there is any possibility to backtrack on this decision.”
Abdullah’s sudden and unexpected announcement, following public demonstrations in Jordan and a letter signed by 80 Jordanian legislators urging the cancellation of the appendix, illustrates two issues that are easily and indeed routinely overlooked when considering Israeli negotiations with neighboring Arab interlocutors:
- The intense hostility to, and non-acceptance of the Jewish state of Israel by Arab societies; and
- The undergirding problem that bedevils all such negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs—the inadmissibility under Sharia law of relinquishing lands once controlled by Muslim powers and thus deemed a waqf (a perpetual Islamic trust) to non-Muslims.
Abdullah’s decision to terminate the leases next year rather than renewing them is a strong indicator of the first. It is well-known that Abdullah has been continually pressured within Jordan to do whatever he can to distance himself from Israel and even to abrogate the entire peace treaty.
This development starkly illustrates the huge mistake that can be made when Israel makes generous concessions to an Arab party under the misapprehension that the personal friendliness of an Arab interlocutor—in this case, the late Jordanian King Hussein—is something that is somehow guaranteed to endure even under a stable regime.
Israel fatefully waived its sound claim to sovereignty, no doubt thinking that its territorial generosity would help to entrench and secure the original peace agreement.
Instead, what we now see is a Jordanian king who does not share the reputed friendliness of his father towards Israel and who has different priorities, and therefore can simply terminate the lease. Other than appealing to him to change his mind, it would seem that Israel has limited power to alter the Jordanian decision.
To the objection that the Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan give the lie to the assertion that secure treaties cannot be achieved with Palestinian Arab interlocutors, it bears recalling that in both cases, neither country was required to relinquish lands once controlled by Muslims.
To the contrary, by signing the Camp David peace treaty in 1979, Egypt secured the return to its control of the entire Sinai peninsula, giving only a chilly, mean-spirited peace in return. There are still almost no business relations or relations among professionals between the two countries.
In the case of Jordan, Hussein was able to sign a peace with Israel because he had publicly relinquished his claim to the West Bank (Judea/Samaria), as a result of which no territorial claims were at issue. Indeed, the only land at issue seems to have been these farmlands, which the treaty secured to Jordanian sovereignty.
The issue therefore changes character when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Here, Israeli governments, irrespective of their political complexion, are seeking agreements that would formalize the legitimacy of Israeli control over at least some disputed territory previously controlled by Muslim powers and thus regarded as a waqf.
Muslim governments might bow to force majeure, knowing that they cannot dislodge Israel for the present, just as they cannot dislodge Spain from Andalusia or India from Kashmir.
These territories lost to Islam are, as it were, on the back-burner—issues to be fought another day. Only the more radical Muslim movements speak of them at present or launch attacks on account of them. But the territories conquered by Israel in 1967 are not seen in such terms, and the whole world deems them to be negotiable.
Accordingly, Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have never agreed to normalize an Israeli presence even an inch beyond the 1949 armistice lines. This is why the most generous peace proposals in 2001, and again in 2008—encompassing full Palestinian statehood, a capital in the eastern half of Jerusalem, sovereignty even over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (Judaism’s holiest site), tens of billions in U.S. aid to resettle refugees and their descendants, and Israeli withdrawal from virtually all of the territory in Israeli hands since 1967—have not met even with a P.A. counter-offer, let alone acceptance.
King Abdullah’s announcement is a sober reminder that these realities can only be overcome by a slow, gradual, international process of change and reform in Muslim society. Sadly, this means that a genuine, formalized Israeli-Palestinian peace will remain elusive for the foreseeable future.
Morton A. Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America. Daniel Mandel, Ph.D., is director of the ZOA Center for Middle East Research.
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