by Ariel Kahana, Daniel Siryoti, Adi Hashmonai, Ronit Zilberstein, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Amid rising domestic pressure, King Abdullah says he will not renew clauses in 1994 peace deal that lease borderlands to Israel
Jordan's King Abdullah
Jordan's King Abdullah on Sunday said he has decided not to renew parts of his country's landmark 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
The king released a statement saying that he intends to pull out of clauses in the agreement that allow Israel to lease two small areas comprising 1,000 acres of agricultural land – Baqura, known as Naharayim in Hebrew, in the northern Jordan Valley, and Ghamr in the south – from the Jordanians for 25 years.
The leases expire next year and the deadline for renewing them is Thursday.
In Baqura, Israeli "rights" date back to the 1920s, when Russian Jewish engineer Pinhas Rutenberg obtained a concession in British Mandate Palestine to build a power plant there.
Both areas became part of Jordan after the kingdom gained independence in 1946. Israel seized control of Baqura in 1950 and Ghamr in the 1967 Six-Day War. Jordan regained sovereignty over the areas as part of the 1994 peace deal and agreed to grant Israeli farmers and military officers free access to both.
In the wake of the agreement, the power plant in Naharayim was named "Isle of Peace." In 1997, it became the scene of a gruesome terrorist attack, when a Jordanian soldier opened fire at a group of Israeli schoolgirls on a field trip, killing seven and injuring six others.
"These are Jordanian lands and they will remain [Jordanian lands]. We are practicing our full sovereignty on our land. Our priority in an era of regional turmoil is to protect our interests and do whatever is required for Jordan and the Jordanians," Abdullah said in a statement Sunday.
The king did not give a reason for his decision, but he has faced escalating domestic pressure to end the lease and return the territories to full Jordanian control.
A statement by the Jordanian Foreign Ministry said that "under the terms of the peace treaty, the lease would be automatically renewed unless either of the parties notified the other a year before expiry that it wished to terminate the agreement."
Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab states to have peace treaties with Israel.
Jordan and Israel have a long history of close security ties and have also been expanding economic ties in the last year, including a major deal to export billions of dollars of Israeli natural gas to the kingdom through a pipeline that crosses their northern borders.
However, the peace treaty with Israel is unpopular and pro-Palestinian sentiment widespread in Jordan. Activists and politicians have been vocal against a renewal of the lease, which they say is "humiliating" and perpetuates "Israeli occupation" of Jordanian territory.
Tensions between Israel and Jordan have mounted in recent months over such issues as the contested status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, the stalled Middle East peace talks, and last year's shooting of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli Embassy guard in Amman, which ignited a diplomatic crisis. Relations thawed after Israel replaced its ambassador.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that Jordan wanted to exercise its option to end the arrangement, but stressed the Israel "will enter negotiations with it on the possibility of extending the current arrangement."
Netanyahu said the "accord as a whole is an important thing" and called the peace deals with Jordan and Egypt "anchors of regional stability."
Former Israeli Ambassador to Jordan Oded Eran said he was not surprised by Jordan's decision, and said there was still time for the two countries to renegotiate the agreement.
He dismissed the possibility that Jordan might pull out of other parts of the broader peace treaty.
"For its own interests, the continuation of the adherence to the peace treaty is in Jordan's interest as indeed it is in the interest of Israel," Eran said.
Dr. Abdullah Swalha, founder and director of the Center for Israel Studies in Amman, told Israel Hayom that "there have been calls in Jordan to cancel these clauses for two years. Recently, 86 MPs signed a petition demanding this. There is no economic gain for Jordan here, so the king did it to appease public opinion."
He said he believed a deal could be reached regarding the leasing of lands in Ghamr, but stressed that "there is no scenario where Jordan relinquishes sovereignty over Baqura. Jews have some rights there and monetary compensation will probably be discussed, or Jordanian farmers would lease the land from the Jews, but we will not give up the land."
A senior Jordanian official denied reports that the move stemmed from Palestinian or Arab pressure.
"These lands belong to the Kingdom of Jordan, and in light of the regional reality in recent years, it is not appropriate for them to be leased [to a foreign entity]," he said.
He said Jordan's position was not a violation of the peace treaty, saying, "The king acted in accordance with the terms outlined in the clauses signed 24 years ago."
Israeli farmers were stunned to learn of the move.
"It's like a bomb hit us. This means that years of work will go down the drain," said Dr. Eyal Blum, head of the Central Arava Regional Council.
"The agricultural lands here are very significant in terms of the area's security, national security and the agricultural sector in the Arava [Desert]. This means 30 agricultural farms in an area covering 345 acres will collapse. It is inconceivable that after all these years the order will change."
Erez Gibori, a farmer from Moshav Tzofar, said the area's farmers "are now fighting for our lives. If they close the gates to our lands, there's nothing for us here. We will leave. The state cannot abandon us."
The news "was a big surprise," said Jordan Valley Regional Council head Idan Greenbaum.
"We were very disappointed and saddened to learn of the king's decision. This came as a shock to us because we have a very good relationship with our Jordanian neighbors.
"This isn't the end of it, though. We expect the government to sit down with the Jordanians and reach an agreement that will allow us to continue farming these lands, as we have been doing for the past 70 years," he said.
Ariel Kahana, Daniel Siryoti, Adi Hashmonai, Ronit Zilberstein, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
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