When King Hussein announced last July that Jordan was severing its political ties with the West Bank, he implicitly acknowledged that his strategy of 20 years, to broaden and deepen his political base there, had been overtaken by the Palestinian uprising. The Palestinian revolt has asserted an independent political identity with such clarity and force as to make it impossible for Jordan to continue to claim to represent the Occupied Territories politically.
The communiqués issued by the Unified National Leadership did not conceal the accumulating enmity towards the regime. They apparently had a personal effect on the king himself, who was deeply disappointed by the “hostile” attitude they expressed.
But the king’s decision was no act of pique. Rather, it was a recognition of the political implications of the uprising, which completely undercut Jordan’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel, the United States and the Arab countries. The Unified Leadership’s unequivocal identification with the Palestine Liberation Organization and its demand for an independent Palestinian state made it clear that West Bankers had no interest in returning to the pre-1967 status quo as envisioned under UN Security Council Resolution 242. Even recent Security Council resolutions had begun to refer to the West Bank and Gaza as Palestinian territories, and the Arab summit in Algiers in June reaffirmed the PLO’s exclusive responsibility for them.
Another key element in the king’s calculations was the US failure to secure an Israeli commitment to territorial compromise, which further weakened the Jordanian claim to Arabs and Palestinians that it was the most capable party in any negotiations. Furthermore, no matter what the outcome of Israeli elections in November, Jordan would come under pressure from Washington to make the first and the most concessions — at a time when its claim to represent the West Bank was being challenged from within.
The king was also apprehensive about the eagerness of some Israelis to reach an agreement that would transfer responsibility for suppressing the uprising to Jordanian security forces — not to mention those Israelis who viewed the mass deportation of Palestinians to Jordan as the most effective way to end the uprising. “Jordan is not Palestine,” King Hussein observed pointedly in his July 31 speech. Interior Minister Raji Dajani, in an August 10 interview in al-Ra’y, described the king’s decision as “aimed at preempting Sharon from claiming that West Bankers are a Jordanian community.”
To some Jordanians, the king’s move was not quite as decisive as it appeared to be, which indicates that it was aimed at enhancing rather than eliminating Jordan’s room for maneuver in the period ahead. The Jordanian constitution forbids “giving up” any part of the kingdom, some of those who opposed the decision point out. Supporters counter that any popular referendum would approve the move, making a constitutional amendment only a formality.
Nevertheless, the fact that the court has introduced no such amendment feeds speculation here in Amman that the move is essentially a tactic to pressure the PLO and its supporters to reconsider their position. The measures taken to implement the king’s decision, especially cutting salaries to West Bank government employees and replacing Jordanian passports for West Bankers with two-year travel documents, only reinforce this suspicion. Supporters of the king argue that these measures were essential to lending “credibility” to the king’s decision, in particular the “authenticity” of Jordan’s acceptance of the PLO as the “sole legitimate” Palestinian representative.
Many Palestinians felt that the measures themselves were not especially severe, but they criticized the timing and lack of coordination with the PLO. “The way they have done it might well serve to strangle the uprising,” remarked one Palestinian here who is close to the PLO. He voiced the apprehension of many that the king was challenging the PLO’s ability to fulfill the responsibilities it claims.
Some Jordanian statements reinforce this sense. “While we have always endorsed a realistic approach, the PLO has insisted on clinging to its illusions,” said one senior official, referring to the demand for an independent state. “While we believe that the liberation of the occupied land should be the priority, the organization’s priority is to assert its right to exclusive representation even at the expense of the original goal of liberation.”
Even if Hussein’s withdrawal from West Bank affairs is tactical, others say, it still poses a challenge to the US and Israel by removing Jordan as a “shock absorber” and forcing them to deal directly with the PLO. They see two possible scenarios. In the first, all the parties come together and find a compromise, but the PLO and not Jordan will have made the necessary concessions. In the second scenario, the parties fail to come to terms, and the PLO will again seek to coordinate its position with Jordan, this time on Jordanian terms. Both these scenarios assume that the uprising will not continue and that the PLO will not convince Israel and the international community to accept Palestinian demands.
The king’s decision has already had repercussions in Jordan, among both Palestinians and Jordanians. Support and opposition is not divided, though, on the basis of these identities. Palestinians as well as Jordanians, for instance, welcomed the move as the beginning of a clearer, healthier relationship. Some Jordanians, on the other hand, resented the step as a blow to the dream of Arab unity. “The unity of the two banks has been a model for a bigger Arab unity,” said Fakhri Bilbaysi, a prominent Jordanian businessman.
The greatest fear for many was polarization between native East Bankers and those of Palestinian origin. The king has asserted that all citizens enjoy equal rights, but other officials have threatened that “dual loyalties” cannot be tolerated, referring to those Palestinians affiliated with the PLO. Some officials imply that the government is reconsidering their status — a step which would affect about one third of the members of the Palestine National Council, at least five members of the PLO Executive Committee and hundreds of members of different Palestinian factions.
“Suddenly I am Jordanian and my brother who lives in the West Bank is a Palestinian — how can I accept this?” asked one 72-year old Palestinian born in the West Bank. “The government is wrong if it believes that it can force the Palestinians to make a choice,” said a young Palestinian economist. “I cannot deny my Palestinian identity or my Jordanian citizenship.” The dilemma is particularly acute for the more than 850,000 Palestinians living in Jordan’s ten refugee camps, for whom Palestinian identity is a core part of their commitment to return to their homeland.
Jordanian and Palestinian personalities I spoke with fear that any government move to withdraw the citizenship of those affiliated with the PLO could severely fracture Jordan’s present political and social cohesion. They urge both the government and the PLO to maintain close coordination. “But unfortunately and despite claimed appearances I am not convinced that there are any indications of real coordination between the two parties,” said Jamal al-Sha‘ir, a former Jordanian minister who heads the Democratic Unionist Party, a group calling for coordination with the PLO and democratization of the country.
The king’s move coincides with increasing calls by personalities across the political spectrum for lifting restrictions on democratic freedoms. While such demands are not new, members of the “traditional elite” are now adding their voices. Supporters and opponents of the regime alike stress the need for both democratization and national unity, and they fear that these latest moves have introduced an atmosphere of uncertainty which, among other things, undermines the chances for recovery from a pronounced economic recession. Following the king’s speech, a number of Jordanians and Palestinians transferred funds outside the country, leading to new restrictions on money transfers. Many people here fear that this may signal a tendency on the government’s part to increase rather than lessen strict curbs on political freedoms in the country.