Monday, June 25, 2018

A quiet affair - Ariel Kahana

by Ariel Kahana

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that the Palestinians are a bigger problem for Jordan than for Israel, and is willing to help King Abdullah as much as he can, quietly

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and King Abdullah 
of Jordan shake hands
Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO

Israel handles its relations with the Arab world in the shadows, like a forbidden romance.
On Monday, King Abdullah of Jordan hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Amman. The meeting included many participants. Abdullah and Netanyahu addressed several issues and even signed a general agreement of some kind.

Nevertheless, the Jordan royal house did not publicize the event. Unusually, the official photographer did not post any pictures on Facebook. Even the Jordanian press release characterized the meeting as a negative thing that had to be completed as quickly as possible, stating: "Prime Minister Netanyahu left Jordan after a short visit."

"Short" is apparently a relative term. The meeting included discussions of matters existential to Jordan and very important to Israel. Mossad head Yossi Cohen, Netanyahu's economic adviser Avi Simhon, military attache Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, and other advisers were part of the prime minister's team. Cohen's Jordanian counterpart, Adnan Jundi, was also there, as was Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, and many others of the king's advisers. When a group like this meets, it is obvious that they are talking business, not merely making conversation.

The two leaders discussed Syrian President Bashar Assad's likely return to the Syrian Golan Heights, a development that could send another wave of refugees into Jordan and the Golan – to Israel's dismay – into the hands of Iranian militias. Abdullah and Netanyahu coordinated on the "deal of the century," which advisers to U.S. President Donald Trump are once again here to promote. They agreed that Jordan would retain its position of responsibility for the Temple Mount. If the king is a "mentsch" (a good guy), and people say he is, he would also have thanked Netanyahu for Israel's special help recently on a matter that is still under a censorship blackout.

Jordan is mired in a deep economic crisis. The two leaders agreed that Israel would lift a few restraints that have made it difficult for Jordan to sell produce in Judea and Samaria. This is not the only recent contribution to Jordan's economy, either: Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia announced it would provide $2 billion in aid to the Jordanians. Rumor has it that Israel had a hand in that deal.

It is clear that after a brief attempt to move closer to the Syrian-Iranian axis, Abdullah has come back to the Sunni side these past few weeks. Israel has a common denominator with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, all staunch opponents of Iran. These are the deep currents flowing underneath the first meeting between the two leaders in four years.

But very little can be said about everything that went on behind the scenes. That's how it is when lovers meet in secret.

The Palestinian portfolio 

The immense gap between what the Israelis, the Arabs, and the Americans say to each other behind closed doors and the front they put up is the biggest challenge facing Trump's Middle East advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt. This week, they both toured the region in an attempt to push "the deal of the century," "the ultimate deal," "historic peace," or whatever else they are calling their Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The two envoys have already visited Cairo, Amman and Doha. They are slated to hold meetings in Jerusalem, but they will not be going to Ramallah – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to meet with them.

Kushner and Greenblatt are identifying what anyone with clear vision can see: that the Israeli-Arab bloc is about to come out into the open, and that everyone is fed up with the Palestinians' tricks. Saudi Arabia, the heavyweight in the Sunni bloc, does not care what is said on the paper it will be submitting to the Americans. As a defense official told this reporter this week, the paper could be blank, for all the Saudis care. The main thing is to present a document that Abbas signs. The Saudis simply want to advance the regional struggle against Iran, under the auspices of the Americans. As far as they are concerned, the Palestinians can go to hell.

Jordan's current approach is not much different. If it were up to Abdullah and his advisers, they would strangle Palestinian nationalism with their bare hands. With Palestinians comprising two-thirds of the inhabitants of the kingdom, the Palestinian issue is a bigger threat to the Jordanians than it is to Israel.

And given Jordan's limping economy, the million Syrian refugees already in the country with more arriving and no end in sight, the Muslim Brotherhood breathing down the king's neck, neighboring Iraq bleeding and neighboring Syria falling apart, and especially the mass protests in Jordanian streets, Abdullah needs to be very careful. He must, or at least thinks he must, distance himself from Israel and swear allegiance to a Palestinian state three times a day, even though he wants it even less than Israel does. If he doesn't, his father's house is in trouble. Anyone who talks with the Jordanians hears that this is what is going on. Publicly, Israel is kept at arm's length, but the two countries are drawing closer privately. Exactly the opposite of what they are doing with the Palestinians.

Israel sees the potential collapse of the Hashemite kingdom as a nightmare. So it agrees to keep the bilateral ties quiet and give the king all the help it can, and is willing to accept the official line that "Netanyahu left after a short visit." For Netanyahu, pragmatism trumps honor.

This is not Korea 

Will Kushner and Greenblatt do the incredible and pull the curtain back on the silent alliance? With President Donald Trump over them, we can never say this will not happen.

But it appears that no matter what the "ultimate deal" entails, it will follow in the footsteps of the deals that came before it. Abbas is giving the Americans a cold shoulder, so the only possibility of a breakthrough is for the Sunni bloc to force the deal on him. Sadly, that scenario looks unlikely. If the king of Jordan is unwilling to publish a picture of himself and Netanyahu meeting at the royal palace, what chance is there that he will stand shoulder to shoulder with him at an international conference from which the dying Abbas is absent?

The prevailing assumption in Israel is that while Trump might have performed miracles in Korea, he will not succeed in the Middle East. Sooner or later, the deal will be read and the question will arise of what happens the day after it is signed. At least some cabinet ministers are already busy with that question. Everyone is assuming that Israel has a historic two-year window, from the time the deal dies until the end of Trump's first term.

At this stage, no one has an orderly plan. Behind closed doors, the same ideas are being floated that have been discussed since this government came into power: Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, widespread settlement construction, and so on.

Of course, at the end of the day everything depends on the laundry list Netanyahu presents to Trump at the beginning of 2019. For years, the prime minister hesitated over any suggestion of annexing territories. Will he change his mind this time?

Ariel Kahana


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