Jordan’s Fragile Balancing Act

Israel's war in Gaza has left the Hashemite monarchy negotiating popular anger and international alliances

Jordan’s Fragile Balancing Act
Jordanians demonstrate in Amman in support of Palestinians on Nov. 11, 2023. (Annie Sakkab/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

Jordan has been on strike: malls empty, shop fronts shuttered, cafes abandoned. Social media groups are reverberating with the pressure to keep businesses closed and children home from school. “But they have an exam!” one mother says on her children’s class WhatsApp group. “Isn’t it worth it for the cause?” replies another.

The cause is the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza, triggered by the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7. More than half of Jordan’s population is Palestinian; those who are not of Palestinian origin themselves have friends, colleagues and family who are. Public sentiment has been vocal, unified and long-lasting, across all demographic groups. Protests began outside Al-Kalouti Mosque, near the Israeli Embassy, in the early days of the bombardment of Gaza, and have continued on a nightly basis until today. Boycotts against Western brands such as Starbucks and McDonald’s have resulted in places empty but for idling employees. The strikes are the latest, and so far the most extreme, manifestation of public sentiment. At the heart of the anger is the stance of the international community. Unconditional U.S. support for Israel’s atrocities against the population of Gaza means the chants and posts are as much anti-American as anti-Israeli: “America is the head of terrorism,” read one banner I saw on social media.

This puts the Jordanian leadership in an impossible bind. In return for significant military and development aid, Jordan has been a long-term partner for peace to the international community, but while all the country’s major donors voice support for Israel, its population is unified in support of the Palestinians under bombardment. These strikes are further threats to the famed stability of Jordan, as the middle and upper classes, the drivers of the Jordanian economy, are all participating, damaging the already weak economy.

How the leaders can square this circle is hard to foresee, and it’s not only Jordan in this position. In signing peace treaties with Israel, many Arab countries have now put themselves at odds with their populations, from Egypt, which signed the Camp David Accords in 1978 and a full peace treaty in 1979, and Jordan, which signed its treaty in 1994, to the newer Gulf signatories of economic normalization deals, the UAE and Bahrain, and also Saudi Arabia, which is on a path to the same type of agreement. Thus, outside the theater of war itself, the countries of the region suffering most directly as a result of the conflict are the U.S. and Israel’s allies, precisely because of the immense pressure involved in balancing domestic and international demands. The last time we saw such conflict between leaders and their populations in the Middle East was during the Arab Spring, the long-term consequences of which were disastrous for both the region and the wider world. The countries are “walking on very thin ice,” a senior Arab official told New Lines.

The previous monarch, the long-reigning and beloved King Hussein, spearheaded the 1990s peace process alongside his brother Hassan, then crown prince. Their treaty, signed in 1994, has endured until today despite many rocky moments and challenges from all sides. With the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by an Israeli right-wing extremist the optimism began to fade, but did not disappear. In 1997 came a shocking incident at the border, when a Jordanian soldier, Ahmed Daqamseh, opened fire on a group of Israeli teenagers on a school trip, killing seven and injuring five more, plus their teacher. This could have been the death knell for the peace process, but King Hussein flew to Israel and met with the grieving families, kneeling to offer his — and by extension his country’s — condolences. This act did more to cement relations between the two countries than any official negotiation, showing what moral leadership guided by humanity achieves. As Hussein’s brother Prince Hassan has so often written, there is no security without human security: Humanity must be at the center of politics, or it will fail.

But Jordan is now in a very different political position from any other time during this long-running conflict. Its peace treaty with Israel is now taken for granted by the West, and the new normalization deals between wealthier Arab countries and Israel are taking center stage. First, the UAE and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords in 2020, and then Saudi Arabia started down the same path toward building economic ties (it is widely thought that one of Hamas’ aims in the Oct. 7 attack was to disrupt this rapprochement, though this does not appear to have been achieved).

As well as granting a name and identity to the country, the Hashemite monarchy also bestows religious legitimacy because its members are direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, which is partly why it was granted custodianship of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in the 1994 peace treaty. This role is important to the royal family. Rumors that Saudi Arabia has been asking for custodianship of these same sites as part of its own normalization deal threaten this religious and political credibility. Once again, Jordanians feel threatened, unprotected by allies who have promised support.

For the royal family, as for over half of Jordan’s population, it’s personal. Queen Rania is of Palestinian origin, meaning Prince Hussein, the crown prince and therefore king-in-waiting, has Palestinian heritage. Both publicly issued calls for a ceasefire immediately after the bombardment of Gaza began, stepping into the role the people were demanding of their leaders. The queen gave an interview to CNN calling on the world to stop the carnage, a position which immediately attracted criticism in the West but met with huge approval in her own country.

The king, too, has spoken out against the violence, and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has been unequivocal in meetings and interviews all over the world, most recently arguing in Doha that Israel’s actions meet the legal definition of genocide. But none of this is proving enough for the country’s people, who have collectively caused Jordan to grind to a standstill. At the heart of the issue are the statements of their country’s so-called allies in the West.

“Alliance means mutual interest/benefit,” posted the Palestinian intellectual Iyad el-Baghdadi on X (formerly Twitter). “When you ask someone to slit their throat for you, the alliance is over.” The U.S. has spent millions on countering violent extremism in the Middle East, yet their current actions are working against all their influence — and self-interest. Even if the current events do not lead ordinary people toward more extreme views, they are reinforcing illiberal and Islamist rhetoric aimed against Western political principles.

Many years ago, I interviewed an imam in Jordan as part of a program that was trying to reduce extremist Islamist content spreading in the country. I told him that the funding came from the American government, and he asked me: “What are they trying to do to stop the hate against Arabs in their country?” President Trump had announced his controversial and highly publicized “Muslim ban,” and I had no answer for him. “This talk of human rights,” he continued, “it’s only for some. But we’re used to this, because during colonial times, too, there were different standards for different people.”

Trust in the West has always been low, and this division in attitudes to Israeli actions will not just worsen it, but also provide fuel to anti-Western forces. Russia has already capitalized on the situation: All around Amman are billboards advertising Russia Today, a television channel controlled and funded by the Russian state. “This is a media war, and RT is winning,” one analyst put it. Putin has come out against U.S. involvement, a message guaranteed to improve his standing. As el-Baghdadi wrote: “It means these countries no longer can trust the US to make their interests a priority. It also means they can start looking for an ally who’d respect their interests.”

The speeches by Western leaders mourning Israeli deaths on Oct. 7 yet dismissing those who have died in the bombardment of Gaza as “collateral damage” have not only enraged Jordanians, but have also prompted deep introspection about the role of the West in their country.

“I’m questioning everything now,” Mohanned al-Arabiat, CEO and president of Generations for Peace, an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to building peace through young people, told New Lines. “I’ve put my life into this work, thinking I was making a better world for my children, but now I feel that the people who fund this work, they only see me as a number, my kids are just collateral damage, none of us count as people — how can I carry on?”

The organization is based in Amman, and its large size inevitably makes it a microcosm of its environment, involving many people from a Palestinian background. Arabiat sees it as imperative that the sentiment on the street is reflected in the work environment. “The staff also have emotions,” he said. “How do they feel about taking donor money, given positions on Gaza? If I want to stay true to the vision of the organization — of course balancing its financial health at the same time — we have to be aligned with how our society feels about the aggression in Gaza.” In this case, he summarizes: “Integrity means moral clarity. We have to maintain integrity.” And so he canceled a meeting with a donor embassy and lit the building in Palestinian colors, but the soul-searching hasn’t stopped, for Arabiat or the rest of the Jordanian population.

This was not just an emotional response. “We know from all our research, that justice, and perception of justice, is a key driver in radicalization,” Arabiat said. “So where does that leave organizations like ours?” America is seen as a major source of injustice in the world, injustice felt directly in the trauma of exile and the grief of much of Jordan’s population, and so to work on American-funded projects feels like taking the devil’s own gold.

How this will play out in the future is sobering to think about. “What the West is doing is against all its long-term interests,” Arabiat said. Another researcher, Amer al-Sabailah, echoed this when I spoke to him in Amman. “What we might see is a proliferation of lone-wolf attacks,” he said, “all over the world. Certain policies are out-radicalizing the radicals, which will push others to radicalize.” Basically, he argues, “it is a process of producing a factory line of radicals.” This is clear to all, as I saw when I asked a friend in the U.K.’s Foreign Office if it was safe to travel to Jordan. He replied that the threat of lone wolf attacks was raised, but this was also the case for London and other cities globally. The threat is already becoming real, with security alerts raised to their highest, attacks happening in France, America and elsewhere, and the recent arrest of an alleged Hamas cell planning attacks against Jewish targets in Europe.

Officials don’t seem to be recognizing this reality. “I met with a representative, let’s say from a European country,” Arabiat said, “in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s response. And his concern for Jordan? The antisemitic content.” This seems risible in the light of the number of dying and the sentiment on the street, and there is certainly nothing a Western country can do to combat it, with the perception of bias toward Israel.

In fact, what has done more to dispel antisemitism in the Arab world is the sight of marches around the world demanding a cease-fire, and the visibility of Jewish groups taking part. WhatsApp groups buzzed with images of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem marching for a cease-fire and being beaten by Israeli military forces — visuals which powerfully enforce the distinction between the “Israeli” and “Jewish” categories. The letters published by Jewish groups, both secular and religious, the photos of arrests being made of people wearing “Jews for Peace” T-shirts, the Orthodox marching in London and New York, all do more to enforce this distinction than any content moderation on social media or Western-funded education program.

The anger is palpable in Jordan, but there is another emotion: fear. “The rhetoric that Hamas is ISIS, the comparisons saying that this is Israel’s 9/11, the language saying you’re either with us or against us — it’s all the type of war on terror narrative that’s terrifying to Arabs,” said Arabiat. “We know what it means, and this is all happening right next door to Jordan — it’s not looking good for the region.” Many Lebanese have been bracing for a repeat of the 2006 Israeli bombardment (which ostensibly targeted Hezbollah but also destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and killed many civilians), but for Jordan, its increasingly peripheral part in regional politics, chipped away by the Abraham Accords, is also a reason for fear. The country simply no longer has the importance to the West it once did.

In this atmosphere, people crave security. When your neighbors are more powerful than you, and when your allies are using your country as a conduit for transporting weapons to strengthen them further, enabling them to kill your family and friends just a hundred or so miles away, you are driven to more and more extreme solutions. This is in fact one reason why the actions of Hamas were lauded by many in Jordan: It was the delight in a successful strike against an enemy perceived as all-powerful, in its way reminiscent of 9/11 and those around the world who felt America had been given a taste of its own medicine. After the repeated defeats of Arab armies in various wars against Israel, this success has been felt as restoring lost pride, as regaining a sense of potential strength.

The reasons why other countries have not been as outspoken as Jordan vary, but in the Gulf, residents have learned, sometimes painfully, to stay silent on the issue. Stories spread around social media tell of a stifling atmosphere in many states. There was an arrest at a football match in Saudi Arabia, because a 4-year-old was wearing a Palestinian flag. After 24 hours in custody, his father signed an agreement never to repeat his mistake. A 6-year-old in Dubai was sent home from school because of a T-shirt expressing solidarity with Palestinians.

But even in the more tightly controlled Gulf countries, boycotts are taking hold, albeit framed as taking custom to “alternatives” rather than outright calls to avoid Western companies. Social media is openly full of anti-Israeli sentiment, which the rulers could be cracking down on, but are clearly choosing not to, tacitly allowing a measure of freedom of expression. They are not sure how to react, trying, as the Jordanian government is trying, to balance geopolitical relationships while acknowledging the sentiment on the street, but coming down harder on protests and visible forms of support for Palestine.

Whether this is tenable in the long term remains to be seen, but it is clear that they will meet no resistance to their iron-fisted approach from the supposedly pro-democratic allies they are seeking to please. And this points to another crucial message the West has sent to the world with their stance on Israel’s actions: They have sanctioned a violent response in defiance of international norms, meaning it will be ever-harder to maintain the hard-fought developments in international law which came in the wake of other extremely violent conflicts.

For the countries of the region, the splits between populations and leaders are widening as a result, and the latter are well aware of the potential problem. The Jordanian leadership has sought closer alignment with the country’s population, speaking out against the violence in the Gaza Strip, refusing to sign a gas deal with Israel and telling the Israeli ambassador not to return after a trip home. Yet this balancing act is not working, either to assuage popular anger by giving it voice or to maintain good relations with Israel. The son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair, posted on social media that “Jordan is Palestine,” indicating the mood in some quarters of the country’s establishment, while the strikes continue at home.

Jordanians know that they need the assistance the West gives, not least because of the numbers of refugees they host. They also know that their country is now majority-Palestinian. There is widespread acknowledgement that it is only the Hashemites holding the country together, which means they are confident enough in their position to allow the population to demonstrate, boycott and strike. But they cannot control the anger, and therefore they cannot prevent attacks against foreign targets, including people. If Western governments want Jordan to be a stable ally, they need to start taking these threats seriously, and understand their own role in the fury and fear felt throughout the country.

The longer this war carries on, with growing unease from previously staunch allies of Israel and increasing calls for restraint, the more responsibility Washington will have for the situation in the future. America is fast becoming a lone voice in its unconditional support for Israel, and will therefore be left carrying the can for Israel’s actions, perhaps even sharing the liability for any crimes committed. Certainly, many in Jordan who are striking, boycotting and protesting are laying the blame at America’s door, and this reputation and responsibility will be hard to shake off.

From lone-wolf attacks to emboldening violent leaders in the present and future, this conflict could have ramifications far beyond the tiny strip of land where it began and the two central actors at the heart of the violence.

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