As leaders meet, Jordan finds itself vital to US plans in the region
By LAZAR BERMAN
US President Joe Biden met King Abdullah at the White House Monday afternoon, with Jordan set to play an important role in America’s changing posture in the region.
It is no coincidence that Abdullah is the first Arab leader to visit Biden.
As the contours of the Biden administration’s approach to the Middle East begin to take shape, the US will look to Amman — a reliable ally — to support key American priorities.
“It’s a well-organized country,” said Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s not a country that’s falling apart. It’s a country that succeeded in getting through the Arab Spring, it’s of course a pro-Western country.”
Biden and First Lady Jill Biden greeted Abdullah, Queen Rania and their son Crown Prince Hussein. Biden and Abdullah then moved to the Oval Office for a bilateral meeting, where they were expected to discuss measures to ensure the kingdom’s stability and address the future of the Jordan-US relationship.
Many of the issues that arise during the Biden-Abdullah meeting will involve Jordan’s neighbor Israel, whose new government is attempting to turn the page on Amman’s often tense relationship with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Important piece of the puzzle
The Hashemite Kingdom has long been one of America’s most reliable partners in the Middle East.
“Jordan is such an important piece of the puzzle in securing our interests and achieving some level of stability and security in the region,” said John Hannah, senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. “Whenever you ask the royal palace for help on a significant security or intelligence issue, invariably the answer is yes.”
The US has been providing economic aid to Jordan since 1951 and military aid since 1957. Total US aid to Jordan has nearly quadrupled over the last 15 years, according to the US Congressional Research Service.
In addition, nearly 3,000 US troops are stationed in the kingdom, and that number may grow.
Biden’s budget request for fiscal year 2022 — the final year of the five-year US-Jordanian Memorandum of Understanding — includes $1.275 billion in aid for the kingdom.
But the regime has shown cracks recently, which are keeping American and Israeli leaders up at night.
Hannah called the potential for instability in the kingdom “one of those nightmare scenarios for the United States.”
Frustration in Jordan has simmered for years against a backdrop of economic troubles, political repression and doubts about Abdullah’s legitimacy. In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated many of the public’s grievances, albeit mostly within the confines of the monarchy’s tight control of free expression.
Jordan’s strict lockdown was initially effective in slowing the spread of the virus, but it wreaked havoc on the economy. Unemployment reached nearly 25 percent by the end of 2020, as the economy suffered its worst contraction in decades.
The tribal groups that have traditionally been seen as the bedrock of regime support have been increasingly critical of not only the government in recent years, but of the entire ruling system.
In April, rare palace intrigue spilled into the open, as King Abdullah’s half-brother Prince Hamzah was placed under house arrest. The dramatic and very public episode shone a spotlight on fissures that have the potential to cause the entire edifice of the Hashemite regime to crumble, with deleterious effects for Israel and its security.
The saga “probably shook up a lot of people in the administration more than they let on, and probably in Israel as well,” said Hannah.
Abdullah’s visit is an important vote of confidence for Jordan after it was treated as something of a second-class ally during the Trump administration. The US at the time seemed insensitive to Jordanian concerns, prioritizing its relations with Gulf allies, Egypt, and Israel.
Trump’s peace plan, unveiled in January 2020, would have Israel annexing up to 30% of the West Bank, a proposal that tapped into Jordanian fears.
Amman’s relations with Israel were even more problematic.
Abdullah said in 2019 that relations were “at an all-time low” after a series of incidents that prompted Amman to recall its ambassador to Israel.
Things appeared to sink even lower in March, when years of Jordanian frustration with Netanyahu boiled over as officials in Amman appeared to accuse him of endangering the region for political gain and alleged that Israel had violated agreements with them.
Netanyahu’s secret 2020 visit to Saudi Arabia raised concerns in Amman that the warming ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh could lead to Israel shifting the leading Muslim role at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount from the Jordanians to the Saudis, possibly with US backing.
A year earlier, in 2019, Abdullah said he was under pressure to alter his country’s historic role on the mount but he wouldn’t change his position.
Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy has enjoyed its unique role at the holy site – which it, not Israel, terms a “custodianship” – since 1924.
Improved ties with Israel
Since it came into office in January, the Biden administration has been signaling –perhaps even pressing — for Israel to improve its relationship with Jordan.
“The Bennett-Lapid government seems to be doing that, for its own reasons and in its own occasionally clumsy way, but undoubtedly also to the gratification of Washington,” said Joshua Krasna, Middle East expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.
There has been a flurry of high-level contacts between the two neighbors since the new government took office in Israel.
On July 10 Abdullah called Isaac Herzog to congratulate him on becoming Israel’s new president.
Earlier this month Bennett met with the Jordanian king in secret at the crown palace in Amman, in the first summit between the countries’ leaders in over three years.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, meanwhile, met with his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Safadi, on the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge crossing. The two announced a deal for Israel to supply Jordan with 50 million cubic meters (65 million cubic yards) of water as it battles a severe drought.
In February, Defense Minister Benny Gantz reportedly met secretly with Abdullah in Jordan. According to reports, Abdullah had refused to meet with Netanyahu, whom he strongly disliked.
But the clumsiness was on full display this week, after Bennett said Sunday that both Jews and Muslims have “freedom of worship” on the Temple Mount, which would be a potentially explosive change after decades of Israel permitting Jews only to visit, but not pray, there.
On Monday, unnamed officials in Bennett’s office walked back his comments, asserting that the premier had meant both Jews and Muslims have “freedom of visitation rights” at the holy site. But despite the sources’ comments, Bennett’s remarks remained unchanged on his English and Hebrew social media feeds as of Monday afternoon.
Israel’s gaffe forced the Temple Mount issue into the headlines during Abdullah’s visit, making it likely to be one of the main issues addressed during the meeting in DC.
Biden will also likely announce his commitment to economic and military aid to the kingdom. On Saturday, the US transferred a $600 million cash grant to Jordan, of the $1.65 billion economic and military aid Washington pledged to provide this year.
He may well urge Gulf states to meet their commitments for economic assistance as well.
It is also likely that Biden will push Israel to agree to new concessions to the Palestinians to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas and allay Jordanian fears.
“The first issue that interests Biden, and also Jordan’s king, is the Palestinian issue writ large,” said Oded Eran, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies and former ambassador to Jordan.
“There’s a new situation,” Eran continued. “The legitimacy of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are questioned, Hamas is growing stronger — this needs to concern both the US administration and the Jordanian regime.”
After the withdrawals
As the Biden administration negotiates troops withdrawals with Iraq, and enters the final weeks of its 20-year war in Afghanistan, Jordan is part of its security plans moving forward.
Amman, Cairo, and Baghdad are building a trilateral alliance to limit Iranian influence in Iraq. The leaders of the three nations — Abdullah, Abdel Fatah el-Sissi of Egypt, and Iraq’s Mustafa al-Kadhimi — have met four times since March 2019, most recently in Baghdad in June.
The emerging alliance is meant, among other things, to ameliorate the Iranian influence in Iraq regarding electric power, energy exports and reconstruction, explained Krasna.
But it is also meant to improve those countries’ geostrategic position vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which were close to Trump. The UAE was the first country to normalize ties with Israel, a move that Jordan has seemed ambivalent about.
Amman has long said peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors shouldn’t come at the expense of the Palestinians. Moreover, Jordan and Egypt — which took significant domestic risks in making peace with Israel — had to watch from the sidelines as the Trump administration engineered the landmark regional deals that did not depend on their involvement.
The Biden administration seems eager to support the Jordan-Egypt-Iraq alliance. The June Baghdad summit was “an important step in strengthening regional economic and security ties between Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan and to advance regional stability,” said the State Department.
“The Americans want to enlist him to contribute to the stability in Iraq,” said Inbar, of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.
Jordan also looks to be an increasingly important home for US troops after the Iraq and Afghanistan withdrawals.
In March, Jordan made public a defense agreement with the United States that allows free entry of US forces, aircraft, and vehicles into the kingdom’s territory.
The agreement was signed in January and the government approved it the next month, but in an exceptional move, it bypassed parliament. The royal decree was published in the official journal in March, only days after the US embassy in Jordan published a travel advisory over terrorism and crime concerns.
The terms of the agreement, published on Jordanian news site Ammon, stipulate that “US forces may possess weapons and circulate with them on Jordanian territory while exercising their duties.”
It also states that US forces may transport and stock equipment and that personnel, their aircraft and ships are authorized to “freely enter and exit Jordanian territory.”
Originally published in The Times of Israel