Jordan Cancels Israeli Land Leases

A sober reminder of Arab hostility to the Jewish State.

Last week, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, in what has been described as a “sharp tone,” announced that he would annul an appendix to the 1994 Israeli/Jordanian peace treaty under which certain parcels of lands in the border regions –– the Naharayim (Baqura) area near the Sea of Galilee, and Zofar (al Ghamar), some 80 miles north of Eilat in the Aqaba region –– were to have been leased to Israel in perpetuity. 

Jews have farmed these lands since 1926, when the then-British Mandatory power authorized it, along with the establishment of a power station by Pinchas Rutenberg. 

However, in 1994, when Israel and Jordan concluded a peace treaty, Israel transferred these territories to Jordanian sovereignty. However, Appendix I (b) in the treaty authorized continued Israeli cultivation of these farmlands for 25 years, automatically renewable for 25-year periods “unless one year prior notice of termination is given by either Party, in which case, at the request of either Party, consultations shall be entered into.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated he will be taking up the matter with King Abdullah in a bid to have the termination off the lease rescinded, but Oraib Rintawi, the director of the Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, has said, probably accurately, “Jordan cannot backtrack on this … This is a decision of the king, government and public. I do not believe there is any possibility to backtrack on this decision.”

Abdullah’s sudden and unexpected announcement, following public demonstrations in Jordan and a letter signed by 80 Jordanian legislators urging the cancellation of the appendix, illustrates two issues that are easily and indeed routinely overlooked when considering Israeli negotiations with neighboring Arab interlocutors:

  • The intense hostility to, and non-acceptance of, Israel by Arab societies; and 
  • The undergirding problem that bedevils all such negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs –– the inadmissibility under sharia of relinquishing lands once controlled by Muslim powers and thus deemed a waqf (a perpetual Islamic trust) to non-Muslims.

Abdullah’s decision to terminate the leases next year rather than renewing them is a strong indicator of the first. It is well-known that Abdullah has been continually pressured within Jordan to do whatever he can to distance himself from Israel and even to abrogate the entire peace treaty.

This development illustrates starkly the huge mistake that can be made when Israel makes generous concessions to an Arab party under the misapprehension that the personal friendliness of an Arab interlocutor –– in this case, the late Jordanian King Hussein –– is something that is somehow guaranteed to endure even under a stable regime.

In this case, Israel fatefully waived its claim to sovereignty, no doubt thinking its territorial generosity would help to entrench and secure the original peace agreement. 

Instead, what we now see is that another Jordanian king, who does not share the reputed friendliness of his father towards Israel and who has different priorities, can simply terminate the lease. Other than appealing to him to change his mind, it would seem that Israel has limited power to alter the Jordanian decision.

To the objection that the Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan give the lie to the assertion that secure treaties cannot be achieved with Palestinian Arab interlocutors, it bears recalling that, in both cases, neither country was required to relinquish lands once controlled by Muslims. 

To the contrary, by signing the Camp David peace treaty in 1979, Egypt secured the _return_ to its control of the entire Sinai peninsula, giving only a chilly, mean-spirited peace in return. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat refused to countenance even the smallest territorial concession to Israel.

In the case of Jordan, Hussein was able to sign a peace with Israel because he had already relinquished his claim to the West Bank (Judea/Samaria) in favor of Yasser Arafat’s PLO, as a result of which no territorial claims were at issue. Indeed, the only land at issue seems to have been these farmlands, which the treaty secured to Jordanian sovereignty.

The issue therefore changes character when it comes to Israeli/Palestinian negotiations. Here, Israeli governments, irrespective of their political complexion, are seeking agreements which would formalize the legitimacy of Israeli control over at least some territory previously controlled by Muslim powers and thus regarded as a waqf.

Muslim governments might bow to force majeure, knowing that they cannot dislodge Israel for the present, just as they cannot dislodge Spain from Andalusia or India from Kashmir. 

These territories lost to Islam are, as it were, on the back-burner, issues to be fought another day and only the more radical Muslim movements speak of them at present or launch attacks on account of them. But the territories conquered by Israeli in 1967 are not seen in such terms and the whole world deems them to be negotiable.

Accordingly, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), have never agreed to normalize an Israeli presence even an inch beyond the 1949 armistice lines. This is why the most generous peace proposals in 2000 and again in 2008, encompassing full Palestinian statehood, a capital in the eastern half of Jerusalem, sovereignty even over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (Judaism’s holiest site), ten of billions of dollars in aid to resettle refugees and their descendants, and Israeli withdrawal from virtually all — but not absolutely all –– of the territory have not met even with a PA counter-offer, let alone acceptance.

King Abdullah’s announcement is a sober reminder of these realities which can only be overcome by an undoubtedly slow, gradual, global process of change and reform in Muslim society. Sadly, this means that a genuine, formalized Israeli/Palestinian peace will remain elusive for the foreseeable future.

_Morton A. Klein is National President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Dr. Daniel Mandel is Director of the ZOA’ s Center for Middle East Policy and author of_ H.V. Evatt & the Establishment of Israel (Routledge, London, 2004).