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Palestine and Jordan

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 3-4 Summer_Autumn 1995 Palest Jordan

This summer I fulfilled a dream. I crossed over from Eilat to Aqaba and journeyed to Petra and Amman. Visiting Jordan is hardly new. But crossing over from Israel is the dramatic sign that peace is beginning to work in the Middle East. 

Two Arab states — one real and one emerging — lie to the east of Israel. Both are theoretically at peace with the Jewish state. Arafat’s Palestine is a reluctant neighbor. Hussein’s Jordan is more enthusiastic. Israel, Palestine, and Jordan were, at one time, all part of British Palestine. Like Gaul, Palestine has been divided into three parts. 

Jordan used to be Transjordan. It is an artificial state with artificial boundaries, a bureaucratic creation of British imperialism. The East Bank was separated from Palestine in 1992 as a gift to an Arab ally whom England had betrayed. It was a substitute for Syria, which Britain had promised both to Hussein ibn-Ali, the leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks, and to the French. Hussein’s son Faisal was given Iraq. His second son, Abdullah, was given Transjordan, then an unredeemed desert with a sprinkling of Bedouin and an isolated railroad to Mecca. Amman, the capital, was a sleepy village. 

Transjordan was transformed by the British and by the Zionist threat. Out of the remnants of Hussein’s Arab army the British fashioned the Arab Legion, the best-trained and best-disciplined Arab army in the Arab world. Most of the soldiers were Bedouin who despised and were despised by urban Arabs. In the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, this army alone prevailed against the Israelis.Their reward was the annexation of what today we call the West Bank, including Nablus, Hevron, Bethlehem, and East Jerusalem. Transjordan became Jordan. And hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Palestinian refugees became Jordanians. 

The annexation was followed by more dramatic change. King Abdullah was assassinated in 1951 because he wanted to make peace with Israel. His grandson Hussein ibn Talal, who became king in 1952, was a young and inexperienced teenager. The Cold War between America and Russia was becoming hot. Gamal Abdel Nasser took over in Egypt and proclaimed his desire to unite the Arab world under his leadership. Radical military regimes, imitating Nasser, seized power in Syria and Iraq. Jordan faced overwhelming internal and external Arab enemies. In 1967 the West Bank was lost to Israel in the Six Day War. Thousands of new Palestinian refugees poured into the remaining East Bank. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established and chose Jordan as its base of operations. By 19970 PLO leader Yasser Arafat threatened to take over Jordan and to turn it into Palestine. 

What saved Hussein and Jordan was the intervention of the Arab Legion. It is this army and this army alone that prevents Jordan from being taken over either by the internal enemy, the Palestinians, or by the external enemy, the Syrians. Ironically, Israel has always been a friendly power, preferring a moderate Hussein to the radical alternatives. But Hussein could not make peace so long as the Palestianian issue was unresolved. 

Along the way Hussein made an almost fatal mistake. Driven by internal public opinion and by the powerful economic ties of Jordan to Iraq, he chose to support Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, in the Gulf War. His reward for this act of stupidity was the alienation of moderate Arabs, the loss of American alliance, and the sudden return of thousands of disgruntled Palestianians fleeing Kuwait. In the midst of all this trouble the fundamentalists threw down the gauntlet and threatened to win control of Parliament. 

The man who rescued Husseim was, ironically, his enemy, Arafat. By making peace with Israel in 1993, Arafat made it possible for Hussein to offer peace in 1994. The American alliance was restored. The Israelis, for their part, were eager to take what they had been waiting for since 1948. Peace with Jordan, unlike peace with Palestine, was overwhelmingly popular with all Israelis, since no territory had been surrendered. 

Husseins’s Jordan has many problems. It is an artificial country with no fundamental national identity. It is filled with militant Palestinians who hate Hussein and who would prefer to unite the West Bank and the East Bank into a large Palestinian state. It suffers from a rising Muslim fundamentalist movement with connections to fundamentalist movements outside of Jordan. It is experiencing inflation and unemployment, triggered by all the consequences of choosing the wrong side in the Gulf War. 

But good things are happening also. The visitor can see them. Impressive economic development is taking place. Amman has replaced troubled Beirut as the banking center of the Arab world. The Palestinians have developed a prosperous middle class. Now Jewish tourism is stimulating the emergence of striking facilities including kosher hotels for Israeli travelers. The chemical riches of the Dead Sea are being jointly developed by Israel and Jordan. 

What is most striking about Jordan is the emergence of an expanding bourgeoisie committed to business and trade rather than war and reinforced by an educated professional class that is generally wary of religious and political extremism. Some of the best medical facilities in the Arab world are now to be found in once-sleepy Amman. The middle class is Westernized. Women appear bolder in urban Jordan than they do in most other Mulim countries. All of this development supports Hussein and moderation. 

Jordan’s new role as a tourist mecca will accelerate the Westernization process. The land is extraordinarily beautiful, with high mountains and unusual archeological sites such as Petra and Jerash. The ancient trade route that passed through Jordan from Yemen to Damascus was coveted by many conquerors. Canaanites, Greeks, Romans and Nabatean Arabs have left their marks. 

As I crossed back to Israel via the Allenby Bridge, I saw both Israel and Palestinian flags shimmering in the heat of the West Bank. In a few years, travelers will pass through Palestine on their way to Israel. In the interim the Likud opposition to the Rabin government will huff and puff, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank will conduct a thousand violent demonstrations, the terrorists will provide their exploded martyrs, and the Israeli public will express its deep ambivalence. But the withdrawal from the West Bank will continue. An irreversible reality is being created. Between Israel and Jordan, little Palestine is emerging. Neither Israel nor Hussein really wants it. But they will have to learn to live with it and with Arafat. 

Great changes are taking place in the political landscape of the Middle East. Even touristy Bethlehem flies its Palestinian flag, a few miles from Jerusalem. Three years ago peace seemed an illusory hope, and Jordan seemed as far away from Israel as the moon. Today, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan have become neighbors. Their destinies are tied together. Sharing peace will mean sharing water and economic development. Some Israelis will turn to Europe to import foreign, non-Arab workers. But others will see that, in the end, there is no alternative to intimate cooperation. 

The Jordan venture was more than sightseeing. It was an invitation to hope.