The Jordanian Factor


20th Century Jordan – And Her Palestinian Constituent

Jordan holds several important keys to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, some commentators regard 'Transjordan' as part of 'Historic Palestine'. The term ‘Historic Palestine’, though, is difficult to quantify. The Ottoman Empire ruled over the entire area between 1517 and 1917 (apart from a break between 1832-1840) and set up districts (sanjaks) which don’t closely follow today’s borders. In 1917, the British took over the area that included present-day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan – and did refer to all three collectively as ‘Palestine’.

However, just four years later (in 1921), Britain carved off more than half the area – today’s Jordan – and ceded it to a royal Saudi clan headed by soon-to-be ‘Emir Abdullah’, great-grandfather of the current King Abdullah.

So, ‘Historic Palestine’, as Britain referred to it, existed as an entity for only four years – and only in the 20th century. And redefining post-1921 Palestine – the area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean – as that same historic entity turns ‘history’ into an overly elastic term. A more accurate description, certainly in Hebrew, for the reduced-sized area is ‘Mandatory Palestine’; it refers to ‘British Mandate’ rule from 1921 until 1948.

Certainly for the first half of the 20th century, the ethnicity, religion, culture and language of Palestine's hundreds of villages was indistinguishable from most villages in Syria, Jordan and the wider surrounds. So one could term all residents of the region as ‘Palestinian’ – or reserve the term ‘Palestinian people’ solely for the modern construct that is no older than the ‘Israeli people’. And indeed, while both peoples can point to ancient roots in the region, the two modern constructs are barely a century old.

Not by chance, then, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1916, did several voices from the Arab world urge the Western powers to combine Syria and ‘Palestine’ into one state. The calculation wasn’t that the area’s Arab inhabitants had too many distinct identities to forge their own state, but rather, that none of the Arabs in the area had any ‘national-based’ identity. Palestine's small Jewish population (still under 60,000) did not yet have much political weight.

(The British census taken in Palestine in 1922 counted just 565,000 Arabs and 85,000 Jews. Since most Palestinian Arabs lived in some 800 very small, totally unconnected villages – each comprised of just one or two clans – many in the Arab world regarded Palestine as an unsuitable candidate for 'nation-state').

Of course, this labeling game in no way means that people should have fewer rights simply because they are assigned different labels. But it does have bearing regarding sovereignty – that the country they reside in can end up being named after an ethnic group other than their own. With the other/rival ethnic group at the helm.

That became the reality of Jordan. Today, its population is 5 million (excluding the recent huge influxes of Iraq and Syrian refugees), but the Saudi-Arabian Bedouin clan which took over present-day Jordan in 1921 numbered just a few thousand. The land-area did have an indigenous population, but it, too, was sparse.

Over the next two decades, tens of thousands of Arabs west of the Jordan River – in what was left of British-ruled Palestine – crossed over to the East Bank to settle in this newly established 'Kingdom of Jordan'. These were, of course, Palestinians, but not refugees – that influx would first arrive in 1948. The progeny of the various groups that populated pre-1948 Jordan now total two million – and are all referred to as ‘native’ Jordanians.

The people referred to as the ‘Palestinians’ of Jordan arrived in two major influxes, in 1948 and 1967. In 1948, at the outbreak of war with Israel, the British-ruled West Bank quickly fell under Jordanian control. Most of the 700,000 Palestinian refugees that fled soon-to-be Israel settled in Gaza and the West Bank – but nearly 200,000 of them continued over into the East Bank, today’s Jordan.

Then, in the 1967 war with Israel, the second major influx of Palestinians entered today’s Jordan. Israel had just conquered the Jordan's West Bank, and while this time there was no mass Palestinian exodus from the new territories that Israel took over, many refugees once more fled into Jordan proper – about 150,000 in all. Some of these were the refugees that had earlier fled Israel in 1948, but most originated from the West Bank.

And Jordanian rule has not extended east of the Jordan River since.

In Jordan today, the 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugees – and their descendants – together number around 3 million. Neither of the two, however, are a homogeneous group.

About 400,000 of these refugees (from both the 1948 and 1967 influx) live in ten refugee camps, all of which are within a 50 km radius of Jordan’s capital, Amman. These refugees are poor and looked after by UNRWA.

The remaining ‘refugees’, though – just over 2 million souls – are a diverse lot. Some do live as ‘refugees’ in different neighborhoods (principally in Amman), surviving on the fringes of Jordanian society. But most are fully integrated citizens, and reside throughout Jordan. And many have done very well economically; in fact, over 80% of Jordan’s wealth and private enterprise is in the hands of these ‘Palestinian’ Jordanians.

Also in this mix are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who used to work in the Gulf States and send back remittances. The Gulf States deported them when most Palestinians, both in the West Bank and Jordan, openly sided with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War.

And the most recent additions to Jordan's population are the major influxes of Iraqi refugees (over 200,000) and Syrian refugees (over 600,000).

How The Bermigo Plan Would Affect Jordan

If the Western democracies were indeed to carry out the Bermigo Plan in Palestine, it would have a huge knock-on effect in Jordan. As the start of the Bermigo venture neared, three courses of action would be open to the Jordanian kingdom.

The first: King Abdullah could try to extract any proceeds on offer from the venture, but reject introducing any of the same democratic components into Jordan, since they would reduce the monarchy’s absolute power.

A second option the kingdom could pursue is have the Bermigo enterprise invest heavily in Jordan, and in exchange, King Abdullah would install democracy – but version ‘lite’ only. And at the king's own pace – and also, without a ‘bothersome’ on-site Western escort.

A third course of action open to the monarch would be to fully join the enterprise, and accept all its democratic obligations – including an on-site Western escort to ensure the country’s full compliance. Jordan could then definitely sue for – and almost certainly be granted – the same massive Western investment as in Palestine. And the risky business of introducing democracy into Jordan could then (at least, in theory) be well protected under the Bermigo umbrella.

Let’s start with the first option. The Bermigo venture gets underway, and Jordan rejects democracy for herself – yet, still requests that her current grant from the West be greatly increased.

That wouldn’t fly in America today. Although King Abdullah of Jordan has been a stalwart friend of the U.S. – as was his father, King Hussein – absolute monarchies are no longer in vogue. America was badly stung by supporting the Shah of Iran to the exclusion of all Iranian opposition, and has since been very uneasy about giving unconditional support to absolute monarchies. If King Abdullah of Jordan wants a Bermigo-scale investment in his country, but insists he retain an absolute monarchy, the U.S. Congress will almost certainly say no.

What, then, about the second course of action, where in exchange for a massive Western investment, the king does genuinely undertake to implement democracy – but version 'lite' and at his own chosen pace?

Indeed, the urbane King Abdullah, educated at Cambridge University, probably has no ideological inclination against full democratic government. But he knows exactly what could happen in a Jordanian ‘democracy’. As it is, many of his citizens elect tribal elders, no matter how corrupt or incompetent. And many, in an unfettered democracy, would vote for intolerant religious parties. Not to mention that large numbers, particularly Jordan’s Palestinians, would vote for virulently anti-Israel parties.

Jordan’s democracy wouldn’t last a year; not only that, the new Jordanian parliament might turn a blind eye as home-grown fanatics dragged the country into direct conflict with Israel.

Well, what if the king designed a very slow-paced program?

No, that wouldn’t work for long, either. Once whetted, the appetite of the Jordanian population – as soon as a window was open – would try to gobble up far more than was on the democratic plate.

So let’s look at the third option, where Jordan and Palestine embrace similar Bermigo-type plans. Jordan gets her massive investment, plus, the same friendly, but ironclad, methodical, long-term escort into democracy as Palestine. I’m assuming for the moment – no sure assumption, by any means – that Jordan’s public might be as keen as the Palestinians on an intimate Western partnership.

This third option could be very problematic for King Abdullah – on a personal level. For, even if Jordanian polls did show wall-to-wall desire to include Jordan in a Bermigo-styled ‘economic-democratic package’, it might be too demeaning for Abdullah to offer the West the same intervention rights as in Palestine. For, the deal would curb not only Jordan’s political extremists or religious conservatives, but drastically prune the King’s own authority, too.

In short, out of the three options, none might appeal to Abdullah.

Perhaps, then, just stick with the status quo? Meaning, even if a Bermigo Plan is implemented in Palestine, don’t advance democracy at all in Jordan, and reluctantly forgo the venture’s vast economic windfall.

No, that wouldn’t work either. Jordanians visiting Palestine would witness a thriving – and rich – democracy across their border, and would soon demand the same freedoms for themselves. The fact that Jordanians would grab the freedoms and immediately abuse them is not an argument these same folks would be interested in. For how long could King Abdullah hold the fort?

All of which means, the king’s best option would probably be the following: to quietly offer the Western powers a trade. The king would agree (off the record) to ratchet down his power over a 10-year period – to the point where it would be on par with a Western monarch like King Carlos of Spain. And where, like in Spain, the king’s status in the democracy would be gratefully endorsed by his public; where the king, himself, is seen as a key protector of the democracy.

For this approach to work, Jordanians would have to benefit from a democracy’s economic fruits before the more demanding features of a democracy entered the picture. There’d first have to be a marked increase in the Jordanian standard of living. And here, King Abdullah would need the Western powers’ full cooperation. [Note that while the ‘economics first’ route could succeed in Jordan, the same tactic would have zero chance of success in Palestine. This will be clearly explained in another post].

Specifically, Abdullah would not hold a referendum (not immediately, that is) on a golden economic package that was linked umbilically to democratic obligations. Rather, when Palestine was first set to embark on the Bermigo route, the king would declare “Jordan has been asked to ensure the Bermigo Plan (or whatever the plan ends up being called) goes smoothly in brotherly neighbor Palestine, and so Jordan, which has always sacrificed to ensure her own Palestinians feel at home (in contrast to other Arab states..), will receive from the West a substantial investment to continue her good work.” You get the gist.

The Western democracies would then invest in Jordan on the same huge scale as in Palestine. The king, within a year, would announce he was electing a council to begin tackling corruption – which, incidentally, is as deep-set in Jordan as in Palestine. With all the wealth pouring in, King Abdullah’s popularity should be at an all-time high. And his own part of the deal would start with cleaning up corruption at all levels; Abdullah could commandeer a crack Jordanian team to do this in the same style – effectively, but not overly confrontationally – as the Western teams were employing in Palestine. Remember, the king would have sufficient Western money in hand for the task – translated, his crack team could be well paid (and not only well cautioned..), and thus, be far less susceptible to bribes, itself.

Slowly, but surely, the king would begin preparing his population for genuine constitutional change (as he had quietly promised the Western powers), but without saying much publicly. Then, after a few years, King Abdullah would announce that the next year, he was going to hold a referendum on a bill of rights. Included in that bill would be a staged reduction in his own power – a 10-year program – after which Jordan would become a full democracy, and where the king’s power would be ceremonial only.

An evolution at that pace should give Jordan enough time to acclimatize to a democracy – and with the essential Western cover close by. Western teams would already be massively seeding Jordan’s economic development just as in Palestine, while now discretely escorting the king’s pre-agreed-upon, democratization program. By the end of the 25-year term, Jordan, too, could be a bustling, full democracy.

Of course, absolute monarchies enjoy their power, and this entire scenario may be too much for Abdullah to swallow. He might opt out entirely, and instead, focus on getting as many of Jordan’s Palestinian ‘refugees’ to exit Jordan and return to Palestine. Let the Palestinians participate in the plan in Palestine, alone – and let the West pay off Jordan simply for voicing political support for the plan.

But even if many Jordanian Palestinians did leave Jordan, the clamor for more democracy within Jordan would be just as intense. It wouldn’t help King Abdullah over the long run.

Moreover, it is highly unlikely the West would be keen to see Jordanian Palestinians resettle in Palestine. As it is, there could be a large influx of returning refugees to Palestine from other Arab states. In Lebanon, nearly 400,000 Palestinians are holed up in refugee camps, and the Lebanese all want them out. In Syria, too, are some 400,000 Palestinian refugees who are far from welcome in that disintegrating country; they might also head for Palestine at first opportunity.

In short, the West may see little point in further crowding the West Bank with Jordanian Palestinians, rather than have them remain in spacious Jordan – and invest in them there.

Once a Bermigo venture was set to go in Palestine, the West would anyway have to invest in Palestinians living in the Diaspora – which means, first and foremost, in Jordan. And it could destabilize Jordan if the West invested in her Palestinian population, alone – even with slimmed down numbers. ‘Native’ Jordanians might highly resent wealth going just to the country’s Palestinian residents.

And so, we come right back to that third option; the West would have to invest in all Jordanians. While this would hardly constitute a financial burden for the participating Western powers – after all, non-Palestinian Jordanians comprise only another two million souls – it does mean the West would insist on some real democratic mortgage.

In summation, no matter how you look at it, ‘avoidance‘ would not be a real option in any scenario – either for King Abdullah, or for the West. The 'third option' (listed above) would be the safest route.