Are the Palestinians Ready to Share a State With Jordan?

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President Abbas may be pursuing a confederation with Jordan -- a move that could finally break the stalemate in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) speaks with Jordan's King Abdullah upon his arrival in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Dec. 6. (Yousef Allan/Reuters)

In the summer of 1993, I was granted a rare scoop as a Palestinian journalist: an exclusive interview with the prime minister of Israel at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, the first ever given to a reporter working for a leading Palestinian newspaper. Midway way through the one-hour meeting, I asked Rabin for his vision as to the ultimate political status of the West Bank and Gaza in 15 or 20 years. Rabin, who at the time, we later discovered, had approved the Oslo back-channel, took a puff at a cigarette given to him by one of his aides, and answered that he envisions It being part of an entity with Jordan.

I remember this response almost 20 years later, and at a time now when the Oslo Accords -- which Rabin signed on the White House lawn in September 1993 -- have all but been declared dead by all parties involved. Mahmoud Abbas, who signed the Memorandum of Understanding with Israel on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that fall, is now on the verge of leaving political life with no clear successor for him or for the Palestinian Authority that has been established in parts of the West Bank since the agreement's implementation in 1995.

The failure of this approach has led some to suggest other avenues of breaking up the logjam  -- the result of U.S. President Barack Obama's lack of political will and the failure of the rest of the world to pick up the pieces without U.S. involvement. It is in this political limbo that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is finding itself toying with an old-new formula: A role for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

In a meeting with members of the Ebal charity in October, which is made up of Jordanians of Palestinian (Nablus) origin and hosted by Jordan's speaker of the upper house, Taher al Masri, Jordan's Prince Hassan bin Talal opened up the issue. In the speech, recorded and posted on the jordandays.tv website, the prince stressed that the West Bank is part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which includes "both banks of the [Jordan] River." He added that he "did not personally oppose the two-state solution," but that this solution is irrelevant at the current stage.

The October 9 talk received little attention until a former PLO leader repeated the idea, albeit in a different tone. Farouk al Qadoumi, one of the founders of the PLO's Fatah movement, gave an interview to the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi, in which he suggested the return of the West Bank to Jordan as part of a federation or a confederation. Qadoumi, who opposed the Oslo Accords and has refused to step foot in the Palestinian Authority areas, has little clout in the PLO, and at one time accused Abbas of being behind the poisoning of the late Yasser Arafat. Qadoumi's statement was quickly opposed by the secretary of the PLO, Yaser Abed Rabo, who called it "naïve."

But earlier this month, Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that Abbas informed several PLO leaders "to be prepared for a new confederation project with Jordan and other parties in the international community," and that his office has already issued reports that evaluate "the best strategies to lead possible negotiations with Jordan" toward "reviving the confederation." He has reportedly asked PLO officials to prepare themselves to pursue this strategy. This report, if confirmed by official sources, could be a watershed moment for the Palestinian national movement, and the highest profile endorsement of this persistent proposal.

Abbas's willingness to explore a Jordanian confederation comes on the heels of the United Nation's recent declaration of Palestine as an observer state by a 138-9 vote. This clear victory for Abbas gives him the political capital to explore such a potentially controversial move -- and also the international recognition of sovereignty that would allow Palestinians to enter into a confederation with Jordan as equal partners.

The idea of Jordan having a greater role in Palestine is attractive for various parties. With the Israelis claiming that the Palestinians might repeat the Gaza rocket problem if they withdraw from the West Bank, the idea of a Jordanian security role in the West Bank can defuse such Israeli concerns. A role for Jordan in Palestine would be publicly acceptable in Israel, where the Hashemite enjoy consistent respect among everyday Israelis. Americans would also find such an idea easier to deal with if talks ever return. And even among Palestinians who are unhappy with the PLO and its failures to end the Israeli occupation, any process that can end Israeli presence in Palestinian territories is welcome -- even if that is replaced, temporarily, by an Arab party, whether it is Jordan or any other member of the Arab league.

The suggestion that Jordan returns to a direct role that can include sovereign control (and therefore responsibility) for the West Bank is a long shot for most Palestinians -- and more importantly, Jordanians. Palestinians will see it as infringing on their independence. Jordanians will see it as a burden that will weaken their attempts at building a new East Bank Jordan with as few citizens of Palestinian origin as possible. Such a deal would certainly make Palestinians a majority in a federal system, bringing about the scenario that right-wing Israelis have been pushing, namely that Jordan is Palestine.

A Palestinian-Jordanian confederation, however, is another issue. Confederations are political systems that include two independent countries. For some time in the 1980s, this was the most talked-about term in the region. The late Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyyad), the former head of intelligence for the PLO, was quoted as saying that what Palestinians wanted was five minutes of independence and then they would happily agree to a confederation with Jordan. However, the issue became politically poisonous as soon as the late King Hussein of Jordan said publicly that he doesn't want anyone to ever utter the term "confederation." And so it has been for the past two decades.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, whose wife is of Palestinian origin, doesn't have the same sensitivity, nor do Palestinians have the same concerns about him and a possible Jordanian lust for Palestinian land. Since 1988, Jordan, which had controlled the West Bank until it was lost in the 1967 war, has declared that the unity of the two banks back in the early 1950s is no longer the case. Shortly after the eruption of the 1987 Palestinian intifada, King Hussein declared a cessation of its role in the West Bank. This cessation, which has yet to be constitutionally mandated, has been rejected by the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood -- the largest and most organized opposition group in Jordan.

It is not clear whether the idea suggested by Prince Hassan and Farouk Qadoumi, and apparently espoused secretly by U.S. envoys to the region, will ever get traction. It is also not clear whether the words of the late Rabin of the Labor party that I published in the leading daily Al Quds at the time are still valid in Israeli governmental circles now headed by the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu and most likely will continue so after next month's election. Ironically, Jordan's parliamentary elections, which the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamic Action Front Party will boycott, will take place the following day.

While it is unclear if Jordan will ever end up having any sovereign role in the West Bank, support for a greater role for Jordan in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will no doubt increase in the coming months and years if the current decline of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority continues. The one determining factor in all of the discussions will have to come from the Israeli side, which has yet to decide whether it will relinquish sovereignty over the areas occupied in 1967 to any Arab party, whether it be Palestinian or Jordanian.

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Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and the former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

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