Jordan Is Palestine: So What? The Conference Review Part I
Great line-up, lots of controversy. I anticipated that it would be an interesting event! Here is my story about the Jordan Is Palestine Conference that took place in Jerusalem on 17 October 2017. I am going to cover this topic in three separate but connected posts, divided up as follows: (1) the idea that Jordan is Palestine – this post; (2) the man, Mudar Zahran, Secretary General of the Jordan Opposition Coalition, around whom the conference was designed; and (3) the quality of the conference itself. But first, let me show you the original programme as it was advertised:
It looks like an amazing conference, well organized and with a clear story line — past history, present day circumstances, and tomorrow. . . . the best-case scenario for tomorrow as envisioned by the organizers.
Did the actual conference live up to expectations? You should know that not all speakers listed above actually made it to the conference; some were replaced and others just did not arrive or speak. Those who are listed but did not speak include: Mordechai Kedar, David Bedein, Raphael Israeli, David Ha’ivri and Samer Libdeh. Speakers not listed above include: anthropologist Geoffry Clarfield, political scientist Salim Mansur, campaigner and political analyst Jeremy Saltan, and journalist Yishai Fleisher. And Mudar Zahran, himself, did not make it to Israel but was broadcast at the end of the day over a Skype connection.
The Idea: Jordan is Palestine
In his talk at the end of the day, Mudar Zahran claimed that in the 1920s, the Hashemites agreed that Jordan is Palestine, not in those exact words, because, of course, no Arabs referred to themselves as Palestinians until at least 40 years later. But, upon division of the British Mandate of Palestine, with the Jordan River as the anticipated boundary (before offering the Arabs a second partition of the land in 1947), mandatory land east of the Jordan was intended for the Muslim Arab Palestinians and mandatory land west of the Jordan was slated for the Jewish Palestinians — the former was called Trans-Jordan and is now Jordan, the latter is the modern State of Israel.
Remember, in the 1920s, the land mass that would become Jordan was populated mainly by a number of Bedouin tribes. Referring to Joan Peters, Geoffrey Clarfeld told the audience that there were then 56 nomadic tribal groups and 35 dialects extant in the region.
In 1948, Jordan was inundated by an influx of refugees from what would soon become Israel, and in 1967 by Arabs fleeing from Judea & Samaria (aka the West Bank) — all of these becoming the so-called Palestinian refugees. They became the majority group in Jordan and, according to Mudar (in his 2012 paper in The Middle East Quarterly) and a student who conducted interviews with Bedouin Jordanians, and other researchers, their presence challenged and continues to challenge the development of a Bedouin-Jordanian national identity supported by the king.
The Palestinian refugees are not the only refugee group to set up home in Jordan. There are refugees from Lebanon and Iraq and, more recently, a huge number of Syrian refugees. The difference is that these latter groups are expected to return home when their own lands will be re-stabilized whereas the Palestinians are expected to stay in Jordan.
The Hashemite King, Abdullah I, may have given the Palestinians Jordanian citizenship, but he did not give them equal rights by any means. In spite of this, Palestinian-Jordanians are seen by some historians as invested in their Jordanian identity. Over the past decades, there have been clashes between the Palestinian-Jordanians and Bedouin-Jordanians but intermarriages and other intermingling among the populations has reduced the difference for the younger generation.
Among other problems causing weakness in Jordan, there are some claiming there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Jordanian monarchy because the king and his family drain the resources of the country, leaving a large proportion of the population to suffer in poverty:
Government policies, decisions and actions are soaked in corruption and nepotism. Thus, favoring the close circle of the royal family and political elite over the rest of the population by giving them more privileges and services. This has led the opposition in Jordan to question the royal family’s credibility and the regime’s efficiency. [Jordan on the Brink – page 37]
Hirak youth marched to curb the monarchy’s near-absolutist power, revise the Elections Law to enhance pluralism and participation, and extirpate widespread networks of corruption. [Tribal Politics in Contemporary Jordan – page 230]
Describing the fate of Bedouin children who must look for their next meal in trash bins on the streets of Jordan, Abed Almaala teared up, his pain palpable. Both Almaala and Zahran argued that if the king were overthrown, power taken back from the fewer than 90 individuals who currently run the country and true democracy instituted, there would be sufficient financial resources freed up from the wasteful expenditures supporting the monarchy and its expensive tastes (for example, Queen Rania’s penchant for buying $200,000-dresses according to Almaala) to provide for the welfare, education and health needs of the populace. The palaces could be converted into hospitals and other public institutions, among other positive changes.
It seems that the end of the first decade of the current century was a watershed time for the Jordan is Palestine issue. Mudar’s article of that name was published in English in 2012. In that article he wrote:
With Jordan home to the largest percentage of Palestinians in the world, it is a more logical location for establishing Palestinian statehood than on another country’s soil, i.e., Israel’s. [page 9]
King Abdullah II would much prefer to see the Israeli-Palestinian (so-called) conflict resolved by the infamous two-state-solution, of course. In October 2011, he delivered a speech in the Jordanian Parliament related to the Jordan is Palestine idea. The king stated that:
we are committed to supporting our Palestinian brethren, until they regain their rights and establish their independent state on their national soil, [but . . .] we will not accept, under any circumstances, any settlement of the Palestinian cause at the expense of Jordan or at the expense of any of our national interests.
In an earlier speech (September 2011), Abdullah made it clear that “Jordan will not be an alternative country to anyone.” He made it clear that he is purposefully isolating the Palestinian Jordanians and attempting to forge a purely Bedouin identity for Jordan.
The king, in his speech, was using a common Arab political trick of saying an undesired thing to the public — reminding the Palestinians of the civil war in which they were slaughtered  — and then, in the same sentence, ostensibly defusing the threat of another slaughter by adding that he would spare the Palestinians so long as they accept the situation as is, where they are citizens, but still treated as refugees and outsiders in every way.
Are there forces within Jordan, among the Palestinian Jordanians in particular and perhaps among the younger generation of dissatisfied Jordanians in general, that would support the idea of Jordan is Palestine? Not necessarily. For two years (2011-12), a Hirak movement of tribal youths demonstrated across the rural regions of Jordan demanding electoral reform and democratization. They did not ask for the fall of the monarchy, but they wanted reform. They did not want favours from the monarchy as their tribal elders had accepted; they wanted reform. They were not anti-Palestinian either. The movement waned upon witnessing the falling apart of Syria, their neighbour to their north. But perhaps they are hibernating until conditions become more favourable once more for them to continue their nonviolent protests.
Jordan is Palestine — Music to Israeli Ears, BUT . . .
What this means to me is that there is much more going on in Jordanian society than an outsider, unfamiliar with Jordanian history and development, can hope to understand. As I began to read academic articles I began to appreciate this fact. Jordan is much more than Jordan-is-Palestine. In spite of the incredible attractiveness of this idea to me as an Israeli — the beautiful simplicity of its implied solution for our problem with the Palestinian Arabs in Judea and Samaria — it is actually up to Jordanians of all ethnicities to define their national character. Seems almost silly that I have to say that.
So, as much as MK Yehuda Glick wants to see Jordan = Palestine as a temporary step toward regaining Jewish lands that lie on the east side of the Jordan River (yes, he did say that), as much as former MK Arieh Eldad would like to see the Israeli government adopt the policy that Jordan = Palestine, as much as Mordechai Nisan believes that Jordan = Palestine in the same way that Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, we really cannot interfere in the internal politics and socio-cultural development of a country in which we have no vote ourselves.
The invitation for us to get involved in defining the nature of Jordan’s national identity, even coming from a group of Jordanians, should not lead us to fall into the trap of overstepping our bounds. The most we can do, I think, is along the lines suggested by Australian lawyer David Singer who, in 1979, founded the organization, Jordan is Palestine International. His idea is that the two successor states to the British Mandate of Palestine (and perhaps including Egypt as well, re Gaza) resolve through negotiation the fate of the remaining 5% of the land that remains in dispute.
And here I want to return to something MK Glick said: he emphasized the success of the two-state-solution mantra, something those who believe in it have been reciting over the past two decades, even using it as a response to questions regardless of its relevance to the specific question asked. By the sheer force of its repetitions, it has been ingrained into international consciousness. Glick suggested that we begin repeating the Jordan-is-Palestine mantra to change the international tune. Perhaps.
Or perhaps more potentially feasibly we could repeat the mantra Israel-Jordan negotiations.
As a final word, I want to relate to the claim that a Palestinian Jordan would be a democratic secular state — let us not forget that not so long ago, Turkey was a democratic secular state. Remember, in the Middle East what you see is not necessarily what you get (or: here today, gone tomorrow, or: OOPSIE!).