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Jordan looks to reset ties with Washington after four turbulent years

Dec 01,2020 - Last updated at Dec 01,2020

There is a sense of reserved optimism in Jordan following the outcome of the US presidential elections, which unexpectedly delivered a clear victory for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Like many countries in the region and beyond, Amman was preparing for Donald Trump’s second term and what that may mean for the region under his controversial peace plan. It is no secret that ties between Amman and Washington have been strained over a number of steps which Trump had taken on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, in particular his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv, the severing of US funding to UNRWA, among others.

His Majesty King Abdullah had rejected these decisions and ignored Trump’s peace plan, while reiterating his commitment to the two-state solution as the only just and viable path to a lasting peace and the conclusion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. While the king and Trump had not met for almost two years, Washington’s financial and military support for the kingdom continued and earlier this year the White House appointed a new envoy to Amman.

For King Abdullah, standing up to Trump’s unilateral approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a risk worth taking. Aside from the Palestinians, Jordan stood to lose the most from what the plan would deliver; annexation of most of the West Bank, recognition of Israeli settlements there, severing East Jerusalem’s ties with the rest of Palestinian territories in return for a non-contiguous entity that represents a Palestinian state. Most serious was the suggestion that Palestinian refugees will be denied the right of return and will be settled in host countries. Jordan hosts more than 2 million Palestinian refugees.

The drive to impose this plan was so challenging for Jordan that King Abdullah declared that unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley, as planned by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu last May would threaten the 25-year-old peace treaty between the two countries. Eventually, Israel backed down, for now, as two Gulf states stepped in to normalise ties with Tel Aviv.

While Jordan was preparing itself for the worst scenario, ahead of a Trump victory, news that former Vice President Biden had clinched the presidency came as a relief. King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to call the President-elect to congratulate him and to vow to work together to strengthen bilateral ties. Biden was the one to express his commitment to the two-state solution. King Abdullah is expected to visit the White House in February, according to sources.

Jordan’s diplomatic role in the region had suffered in the last four years. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abass’ reaction to Trump’s unilateral steps has been extreme; severing all contacts with the US administration even as the Palestinian Authority was going through unprecedented financial and political difficulties. Jordan had pressured Abbas to engage the Trump administration in a bid to delay possible annexation, without success. With the departure of Trump Abbas feels vindicated.

Buoyant by the naming of Biden’s national security and foreign policy team last week, Jordan now sees a return to multilateralism, diplomatic engagement and a semblance of balance in the policies of the incoming administration. It would signal a rejuvenation of Jordan’s regional role, especially with regard to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So much so that King Abdullah and President Abbas met in Aqaba on Sunday, the first such meeting in months, to coordinate next moves. The King reaffirmed Jordan’s full support for the Palestinian people, as they seek their just and legitimate rights to an independent, sovereign and viable state on the June 4, 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital. He underscored the importance of preserving the legal and historical status quo in Jerusalem, expressing Jordan’s rejection of all unilateral measures aimed at altering the city’s identity or religious sites, and attempts to impose spatial or temporal divisions in Al Aqsa Mosque/Al Haram Al Sharif. The latter is of special interest to the king in his capacity as custodian of Muslim and Christian holy places in East Jerusalem; a role acknowledged in the peace treaty with Israel and by the Palestinian leadership.

Jordan now hopes to take the lead in soliciting international support to rescue financially troubled UNRWA. The Biden administration is expected to reverse Trump’s decision to suspend financial support of the UN organisation as well as resuming direct aid to the PA.

But it is too early to celebrate a quick return to the two-state solution. Under Netanyahu, Israel is unlikely to slow down its settlement activity, which has accelerated in the past few weeks. While Arab and international support for the two-state solution has been reiterated time and again this year, it is unclear how the Biden administration will move to revive it or even roll back some of Trump’s most controversial steps. But for Jordan, the coming months will bring a reset in its ties with Washington.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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