During a recent visit to Amman, Dr. Elad Ben-Dror, of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, steps into a souvenir shop and finds a vast gap between public and underlying attitudes toward Israel. Here’s his personal account.
A large, rusted key to an Arab house deserted in 1948. An old map of Israel depicting only Arab villages. Pictures of mosques atop the Temple Mount. These are some of the most popular souvenirs sold in Jordan these days. And they all express the desire to “return to Palestine.” I asked the shopkeepers, “Do you really believe that the refugees will return to Israel?” In unison they replied, ” No, of course not.” “But you know”, relates one, “this is a part of the ‘folklore,’ the tradition, upon which our children are brought up.”
Not an Enemy but an Ally
This experience illustrates the complexities of Israeli-Jordanian relations. Jordan openly expresses hatred toward Israel. In parliament, the media and the public sphere, Israel is constantly denounced, and there are calls to cut diplomatic ties. Aggressive demonstrations have been held outside the fortified Israeli embassy in Amman, and the education system is replete with “inciteful” material. But beneath the surface there are stable relations and an understanding that Israel is not an enemy but an ally.
There are also discreet security agreements. According to foreign media sources, the IDF recently gave 16 Cobra helicopters to the Jordanian army in order to help them protect their eastern border from Islamic State. Since Jordan is on the front lines against ISIS, it’s a strategic buffer from Israel’s perspective. Even before the “Arab Spring”, Jordan, like Israel, has been concerned with radical Islam and Hamas.
There’s also economic cooperation. Growing numbers of Israeli tourists visit Jordan each year and report a warm welcome. So how do we explain the paradox between the close, tacit alliance and the surging hatred?
A Complex Reality
One might think that there are two groups: moderates who support Israeli-Jordanian relations, and more extreme elements who oppose such ties. However, the reality is much more complex.
At a conference marking 20 years of peace with Jordan, I asked this question to former Israeli ambassador Danny Navo. His answer was amazing. He told of senior parliament members who were friendly and ate at his home but then in parliament protested relations with Israel and joined in the general anti-Israel condemnation. How do these people explain their hypocritical behavior? The same way that the storekeeper supports the return of refugees, yet believes that the idea is completely disconnected from reality.
Some Israelis believe that the main thing is security ties; everything else is less important. I disagree. Security relations are crucial but who can guarantee that these complex relations will continue indefinitely? With the Arab Spring we saw how the masses dictated change to their governments. The Israel-Jordan peace treaty is a great strategic asset for both countries but no one can promise that some major incident won’t abruptly bring it to an end. There may be ways to minimize the gap between what is desirable and realistic, but the first step is to admit there’s a problem and not to accept it as a given.
Dr. Elad Ben-Dror, of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, researches the Arab-Israeli conflict, and has recently published a book, Ralph Bunche and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Mediation and the UN 1947–1949 (Routledge 2016)