The Jordanian Cabinet sat nervously Nov. 9-10 and listened to scathing attacks by Lower House deputies against the government’s intention to sign a 15-year natural gas deal that would make Israel the kingdom’s main energy supplier.
Outspoken nationalist deputy Abdel Karim al-Dughmi pleaded for the government not to approve the deal. “Slaughter us, but don’t let our enemy have control of our electricity,” he said, while also criticizing “Arab brethren” who export oil and gas but deny them to Jordan. Minister of Energy Mohammad Hamed said that a final agreement had not been signed, and that only a letter of understanding had been reached with an American company, Noble Energy, which is developing Israel’s offshore gas fields.
Hamed told the deputies that the agreement would take pressure off Jordan’s electricity sector, which has suffered over the past three years because of the interruption of Egyptian gas supplies due to attacks on the main gas pipelines in Sinai in addition to the steep rise in oil prices, which has financially crippled the national electric company. The government had taken the unpopular decision to raise the cost of electricity and will do so again in 2015, in spite of the recent drop in international oil prices.
Jordanian economist Yusuf Mansour criticized the natural gas deal with Israel, saying that Jordan should not tie its economic interest to a country that time and again failed to honor its commitments under their peace treaty. He told Al-Monitor that Israel has violated the treaty with regard to allocating Jordan its fair share of drinking water and by threatening the status of Muslim holy sites in East Jerusalem. “We have no clear energy strategy, and now we will be fully dependent on Israel. What kind of a policy is that?” Mansour asked. He said the government should instead focus on developing its shale oil resources.
The $15 billion deal has divided Jordanian deputies, with some backing it as an economic necessity. Many others, however, have in recent months expressed increasing hostility toward Israel. The gas deal is also opposed by the country’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to professional associations, with some calling for the abrogation of the 20-year-old peace agreement between the two countries. The latest confrontation between the government and the Lower House underlines the negative perceptions of Israel in Jordan. Only last month, deputies waged another attack on the government in the wake of repeated incursions of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the Haram al-Sharif, by Jewish extremists under the protection of Israeli security.
Under the peace treaty, Jordan maintains a special role as custodian of Islamic sites in East Jerusalem. King Abdullah condemned the Israeli provocations on the Haram al-Sharif, and a diplomatic rift was avoided when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Amman on Nov. 13 and assured the king, in the presence of US Secretary of State John Kerry, that his government had no intention of changing the status quo at the holy site. Still, Israeli provocations continued, putting pressure on bilateral relations and giving Jordanian deputies fresh ammunition to attack the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour for failing to take action. Meanwhile, Jordan’s ambassador to Israel, recalled at the height of the crisis, remained in Amman.
Deliberations over the Israeli gas ended with the Lower House making a nonbinding recommendation to the government to scrap the agreement, but Minister of Finance Umayyah Touqan was quick to confirm that the government will proceed with it. Official sources said that the deal would save Jordan around 700 million dinars (about $1 billion) annually on energy by replacing the heavy fuel currently used in electrical plants. Ensour told angry deputies that “no one forced us to seek Israeli gas,” but that other options were not as feasible because other providers were asking for much higher prices. He said his government was “not an agent for any party,” but was merely seeking the best deal in the interest of the country. He added that the government was negotiating with a British company to explore the possibility of also supplying gas from the Palestinian territories.
Reacting to the government’s determination to sign the Israeli gas deal, deputy Yihya Al Saud, chairman of the Palestine Committee in the Lower House, told Al-Monitor that the government has the legal right to engage in such agreements, “but by doing so it will incur the wrath of the Jordanian people and the Lower House, which will be forced to withdraw confidence and sack the government.”
Fifty-two deputies signed a petition Dec. 12 charging that the government was acting unconstitutionally and that the Lower House must approve agreements that affect the treasury or the rights of Jordanians. It is a long shot that it will receive legislative backing, although deputy Rula al-Hroub told Al-Monitor that Noble Energy is not an exclusive party to the agreement — the approval of the Israeli government is also required — so the Lower House could intervene over the deal on the ground that it is an agreement between states.
Animosity toward Israel has been driven by a number of events. Deputies had called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Jordan, Daniel Nevo, over statements he made Nov. 23 that were perceived as derogatory about the country’s parliament. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Nevo and protested.
On March 2, the deputies had called on the government to sever ties with Israel and expel the Israeli ambassador in the wake of the killing of Jordanian judge Raed Zuaiter, who was gunned down by soldiers as he tried to cross the Allenby Bridge into the Palestinian territories. A joint Jordanian-Israeli investigative committee was formed, but has yet to deliver its findings.
Adding to public anger against Israel was Netanyahu’s intent to present the controversial Nationality Law to the Knesset, which has since been dissolved in anticipation of general elections on March 17. Former Prime Minister Taher al-Masri wrote in the daily Al Ghad on Dec. 7 that if Israel adopts the law it will “deliver a painful blow to the concept of peace entailed in the 1994 Wadi Araba peace treaty while revealing its true position on a final settlement to the Palestinian problem.” He added that the proposed law is a direct threat to Jordan’s national security.
Masri, viewed by many as the titular head of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, said that the Nationality Law may cause the transfer of 1.8 million Palestinians to Jordan. He added that Jordan stands to be a casualty of this law, in addition to the Palestinians, and that the kingdom should wage a major diplomatic campaign to stand against it because, he said, “It literally means the burial of the two-state option.”
Adnan Abu Odeh, former chief of the Royal Court, agrees. He told Al-Monitor that passing the law would mean that Israel’s Arab minority, and all other non-Jews, “will be second-class citizens in Israel and will be threatened with transfer.” He added, “Jordan faces two challenges — demographic and geographic.”
“Transferring Israel’s Arabs to the Palestinian territories, as recently suggested by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, will surely be followed by a mass exodus to Jordan.” Abu Odeh believes that the only way to circumvent such a possibility is for the United Nations to recognize the state of Palestine and end the Israeli occupation.
While the government is willing to risk facing public anger by signing the gas deal with Israel, it still views with concern efforts to pass the Nationality Law. Recognizing Israel as the home of the Jewish people will deliver new political challenges for Jordan and the Palestinians. This is why Jordan will be watching carefully the results of Israeli legislative elections slated for March. Relations with Netanyahu may be tense and wary, but Jordan is not yet ready to jeopardize its special relationship with Israel.