Edition 19 Volume 2 - May 20, 2024

Egypt-Israel and Jordan-Israel relations

No recycled solutions - a conversation with  Jihad al Wazir

This was an attempt by Sharon to turn the clock back to the 1970s where there was a total negation of the Palestinians.

Egypt is more frustrated now - a conversation with  Mohamed Shaker

The young Egyptian generation, which has no memory of Egypt-Israel wars, is curious about Israel.

Wildly unpopular - a conversation with  Jillian Schwedler

Jordan's Islamists have always protected their relationship with the regime, even at the expense of the Palestine issue.

Losing their leverage - by  Zvi Bar’el

The disengagement plan may change the bi-polar Egyptian-Jordanian approach and establish a common front.

No recycled solutions
a conversation with Jihad al Wazir

BI: How have recent events affected the Israeli-Jordanian and Israeli-Egyptian relationships?

al Wazir: The Israeli side has really thrown a big punch at both Jordan and Egypt--to Egypt because its President Mubarak was in Washington just before the letters between Israel and the United States were exchanged, and to King Abdullah because of the letters' impact on the legal basis for resolving the conflict and, by implication, the future of the Jordanian kingdom.

At least the US appreciated this enough to temper its statements during the visit of King Abdullah, saying that the final status negotiations should be resolved by the parties.

BI: Why offer this to Jordan?

al Wazir: This way, at least the Jordanian national interest is protected. The Jordanian view is that by allowing the war to continue and by allowing [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's nightmarish scenario in the West Bank, which creates ghettos, with Palestinians staying in these ghettos and waking early in the morning and going behind the wall [Israel has built] to work in industrial zones that the Israelis have created for us, and then coming back to the closed gates of those ghettos at night--that kind of policy is viewed as a policy of silent transfer, and will affect demographics in a manner that will affect the future of Jordan.

BI: So how can Jordan and Egypt contribute to the solution without jeopardizing their own agreements with Israel or relationships with the United States?

al Wazir: There is talk about the disengagement plan, the dynamics of Israeli withdrawal and the need for Jordanian and Egyptian support. We all agree that there is no way to bypass the Palestinians. Any type of credible withdrawal has to be negotiated with the Palestinians and Palestinians will not accept any kind of "disengagement" that will continue to leave Palestinians under occupation. Any credible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have to lead to the cessation of the effective control of the occupation, which means to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, leave territorial waters, leave the entry points, leave control of airspace and borders.

The arrangements that have been made thus far guarantee security and security issues, but we cannot accept continued Israeli control under the guise of security. They are making our lives miserable, and making it unpredictable and impossible to conduct both regular life and normal commerce.

Secondly, any disengagement plan that does not include a link with the West Bank or a view of potential Palestinian statehood devoid of the West Bank is unrealistic--socially, economically, psychologically, and on every other level. Any credible withdrawal from Gaza would have to include a corridor to the West Bank and would have to have a plan for developing the Gaza Strip that is consistent with an overall plan that would not make the success of Gaza development a condition for a withdrawal from the West Bank.

BI: Do Palestinians--and Israel--envisage a Jordanian and Egyptian role in this?

al Wazir: There is talk [by Israel] of changing the rules of the peace treaty with Egypt to allow for Egyptian troops on the [Egypt-Gaza] border. This was an attempt by Sharon to turn the clock back to the 1970s where there was a total negation of the Palestinians and to try to resolve the issue as if it were one of Jordanian control in the West Bank and Egyptian control in the Gaza Strip.

That is something that the Jordanians and Egyptians reject--categorically reject--and both configurations are counter to Egyptian and Jordanian interests.-Published 20/5/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Jihad al Wazir lives in Gaza City and is permanent secretary of the Palestinian National Authority Ministry of Planning. The ministry is now working on a regional plan for disengagement, assimilation of the settlements and linking to the West Bank as part of a comprehensive plan for Israeli withdrawal.

Egypt is more frustrated now
a conversation with Mohamed Shaker

BI: How has the war in Iraq affected Egyptian-Israeli relations?

Shaker: The situation in Iraq has shifted world attention away from the Palestinian issue and diverted it to the daily problems in Iraq and the struggle for stability there. But in Egypt we are not distracted; Egyptian public opinion still gives high priority to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. About a year and a half ago, the al Ahram Strategic Center carried out a poll regarding the most important internal issue in Egypt, and 70 percent said Palestine.

BI: And Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan--what affect has it had on relations?

Shaker: Egypt welcomes any withdrawal from Palestinian territory, but the government of Egypt insists that this be in coordination with the Palestinian Authority and not deviate from the roadmap and the return of the West Bank to Palestinian control.

BI: Then is Egypt more or less frustrated now with its relationship with Israel?

Shaker: Egypt is more frustrated now, due mainly to recent events in the Gulf and the Israel-Palestine conflict. We have no ambassador in Tel Aviv and, recent rumors to the contrary, we are not going to send one now, in view of what's going on in Gaza, the assassinations, etc.

BI: How do you reply to Israeli complaints regarding the need for Egypt to better seal its border with the Gaza Strip in order to prevent arms smuggling through tunnels? Some argue that Egypt fears being dragged into armed confrontation with Palestinians if it seals the tunnels at its end.

Shaker: Egypt wants to keep its border with Palestine open. I can't comment on the tunnels.

BI: At the commercial level, some Egyptians and Israelis are currently working on establishing a cross-border gas pipeline as well as one or more qualified industrial zones (QIZs, where Egyptian goods produced with a minimal Israeli input would be exported duty free to the United States). How do you see these activities?

Shaker: The bilateral relationship will proceed cautiously as long as the Palestinian issue is not solved. Normalization depends on Palestinian independence. The syndicates in Egypt--lawyers, physicians, media--object to normalization due to the Palestinian issue.

BI: Does the current upgraded US-Israel relationship have a strategic effect on Egypt's regional interests?

Shaker: We differ with the US regarding its relationship with Israel, but believe strongly in keeping the door open with Washington. An Egyptian-American strategic dialogue was to be relaunched by Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher prior to President Mubarak's US visit in April, but was postponed due to Maher's illness. We began this dialogue with President Clinton but it never took off. The agenda includes an Israel-Palestine settlement, Iraq, bilateral issues and global trade issues. Under present circumstances in Iraq and Palestine it may be delayed further. But it is more important in difficult times than in times of stability.

BI: President Mubarak was reportedly angry after President Bush's April 14 letter to Prime Minister Sharon concerning disengagement, which came two days after Mubarak's own meeting with Bush.

Shaker: This could explain the delay.

BI: Beyond the Israel-Palestine issue, from an Egyptian standpoint what else has to happen to improve Egyptian-Israeli relations?

Shaker: The Egyptian public is not happy about the US military presence in the Gulf. I don't want to connect this to Israel-Egypt relations, but Egyptian-American annual military maneuvers are not the same as a permanent US military presence in the region. This affects our sovereignty and could be a problem in the future.

BI: Some Israelis fear that even after an Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel-Egypt relations will remain cold.

Shaker: No. If we get a green light from the Palestinians and Egypt is happy with the settlement, relations will improve. The young Egyptian generation, which has no memory of Egypt-Israel wars, is curious about Israel. Once there is peace, I think there will be more open-mindedness with regard to normalization.

BI: Some strategic thinkers in Israel argue that Egypt's military buildup poses a potential threat to Israel, say, in the post-Mubarak era.

Shaker: The most important element in our buildup is modernization. We honor and will continue to honor our peace treaty with Israel. Strong armed forces are legitimate for a country of 70 million inhabitants. Egypt could be called upon to use its army to contribute to regional stability, as in the 1990-91 Gulf War. We participate in peacekeeping forces around the world. Our forces are for the defense of Egypt and future joint efforts like the Gulf War. Therefore we always have to keep a strong army.

BI: Israel National Security Adviser Giora Eiland recently presented to the US administration an Israeli peace plan under which Egypt would be asked to give 600 square kilometers of northeast Sinai to enlarge a Palestinian state based in Gaza, and Israel would compensate it with 200 square kilometers of the southern Negev and the right to tunnel under the rest of the Negev and link up with Jordan. Is this an attractive offer?

Shaker: (Laughter). Do you think any Egyptian would give up Egyptian sovereign territory to anybody--and, what's more, territory that was occupied for so many years?-Published 20/5/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Mohamed Shaker is vice chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, and a former Egyptian ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Wildly unpopular
a conversation with Jillian Schwedler

BI: How would you assess Jordanian-Israel relations today?

Schwedler: They are not the best, but they are not in danger. They are strained, and more strained than they have been for the last couple of years.

BI: How does Jordan approach its "neighborhood", with the Israeli occupation of Palestinians on one side and the United States' occupation of Iraq on another?

Schwedler: Jordan is surrounded by difficult neighbors, which include Saudi Arabia, although for different reasons. In some ways it is at the moment invested more in Israel and in its ties with the United States, despite how unpopular the United States has become throughout the country and the rest of the Arab world.

Jordan was a supporter of the Iraq war--not a strong supporter--but it didn't come out against it. In the first Gulf War, Jordan did not remain neutral and its funding was cut. This time, the government said, we are not going to make that mistake again. But this is a gamble because the war is wildly unpopular.

BI: How seriously does the Jordanian government approach the nagging assessment that Israel will push Palestinians, either blatantly or through gradual pressures, into Jordan as a means of reviving the "Jordan is Palestine" option?

Schwedler: I don't think that it is an immediate concern, but [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon was one of the fathers of the "Jordan is Palestine" narrative, particularly in the 1970s, and which stresses that Jordan is already a Palestinian state. With Sharon in power, this is a real concern.

Jordan has taken all kinds of steps internally, therefore, to make sure that Palestinians do not come to dominate the government. If its majority Palestinian population were to be tipped even further, then the question would be more difficult.

BI: Can you be more specific?

Schwedler: The electoral structure favors non-Palestinian Jordanians (what we generally call "East Bank Jordanians," although East Bank Jordanians are not one ethnicity and comprise a great many groups that came to Jordan in the last 200 years).

One example is that in the lower house of parliament, Amman--where there are a lot of Palestinians--has one seat representing approximately 25,000 to 30,000 people. Areas in southern Jordan, on the other hand, where there are no Palestinians, have one seat for every 3,000 or 4,000 people. This is structured to prevent a majority of Palestinians in the lower house.

The upper house is appointed by the king, and the upper house has to approve any decisions that come out of the lower house. Therefore, the upper house will have a few Palestinians in it, but is overwhelmingly not Palestinian and is another check. This is an important part of the process of liberalization that has begun--a way to move towards the parliamentary system in the very liberal sense, but also to ensure that Palestinians are not going to dominate.

BI: How has Jordan been able to manage its Islamist parties and their expansive agenda for Palestine, despite the Jordan-Israel peace treaty?

Schwedler: In the last elections, the Islamists did a little bit worse than in 1993 and much worse than in 1989. But in 1989, there was not really anyone else on the political scene and it was not surprising to anyone that they did well. They had an infrastructure that already existed throughout the country that could be exploited for elections.

The major thing about the Islamists and the regime is that, since the beginning, the Islamists have had a close relationship with the government. They are not completely co-opted--there are certainly moments of tension. But the first King Abdullah inaugurated the Muslim Brotherhood offices in downtown Amman. They were ministers in the 1960s and 70s. They were never really an opposition group.

BI: How is that reconciled with Jordan's relationship with Israel?

Schwedler: The Islamists have two basic priorities in their formal political program. First is to establish an Islamic society based on sharia [Islamic law] and second is the liberation of Palestinian lands.

But in 1970 in Black September, when the government decided to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Organization enclaves in the East Bank (essentially a civil war for Jordan), the Islamists sided with the government over Palestinians. They have always protected their relationship with the regime, even at the expense of the Palestine issue. When the peace treaty was passed, they voted against the peace treaty, but they maintained their seats in parliament even so.

Therefore, it is an extremely important issue for them, but it must be contextualized. Their defeat in the polls has nothing to do with Palestine or the peace treaty--because the peace treaty is wildly unpopular. Everyone opposes the peace treaty--leftists, communists, Islamists. It is a very populist view. Their political weakness has more to do with a lack of viable programs.

BI: From the West Bank, Palestinians are always frustrated with the ability of Jordan and Egypt to pressure the United States on their behalf. Does the US take Jordan seriously?

Schwedler: I do not think that Jordan can press the United States in one way or the other. The relationship with Israel [in the United States] is so far above anything else that you cannot even talk about it. It is non-negotiable. We are not even open to consider changing views.

In the 1990s, when Jordan was moving towards making peace with Israel, it was not all about the Palestinians, either. It was about rapprochement with Washington after the first Gulf War. That was helpful in getting the Oslo [Palestinian-Israeli peace] process underway, but the Oslo process has been widely critiqued as not necessarily moving towards a just solution.

The US attitude is: "If Jordan is going to come over to supporting Israel in a peace treaty, then great. But if Jordan backs off, it is not going to change our minds about Israel."-Published 20/5/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Jillian Schwedler is assistant professor of Government Politics at the University of Maryland. Her book, Faith and Moderation: Islamic Political Parties in Jordan and Yemen, will be released by Cambridge University Press in February, 2024.

Losing their leverage
by Zvi Bar’el

The last blip on the peace process radar screen disappeared in June 2024, two months after the war against Iraq ended, when a ceremonial summit took place in Aqaba, Jordan. There, United States President Bush and prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) shook hands in a solemn commitment to move the roadmap forward.

In parallel, a new discourse had been developing among Palestinians. Questions like “was the intifadah successful? Did we achieve our goals?” were at the heart of intellectual debates. Questions, and more importantly, misgivings about suicide attacks where in the air. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had agreed, under public and political pressure, to appoint Abu Mazen as prime minister. This was the new leadership that the US and Israel demanded to see as a precondition for the implementation of the roadmap. The war on Iraq was perceived then just as a preamble to the real game, and everybody wanted to participate.

Egypt sent its top intelligence officer, Omar Suleiman, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher to hammer out the security details of roadmap implementation and try to knit together a coalition between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Public criticism against Israel in the Egyptian mass media was contained; Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom was invited to Cairo and reported back that “there is a new atmosphere in Egypt.” Jordan supported the plan along the same lines, making efforts to sell it to additional Arab states. Most accepted it--if not enthusiastically, then at least with a positive nod.

Yet from the Israeli side there came a different tune. Sharon voiced reservations about the roadmap, combined with displeasure with “Jordan’s behavior,” intimating that “it will pay dearly” if it continues to oppose the “separation fence.” Jordan did not budge. Considering the fence as a threat to its national interest, Jordan demanded further American assurances. Suddenly, a bi-polar approach was developing. While Egypt promoted the roadmap, seeing in it a means of reestablishing its influence over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jordan, which had first hoisted the banner of the roadmap, began to see in it shortcomings regarding its own interests.

The Aqaba summit turned out to be the requiem for the American initiative. Ten months later a dubious scheme dubbed “the disengagement plan” was to replace it. This was an Israeli initiative aimed at evacuating all the Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and 4-6 settlements in the West Bank, and redeploying the Israeli army around Gaza, thereby creating a secluded Palestinian enclave with no regime to rule it.

The disengagement plan left no room for the roadmap, since no negotiated agreement was to precede or follow it. This was to be a one sided withdrawal that could not produce any “peace dividends.” Yet no Arab state, nor the Palestinian authority, let alone the American administration or the Israeli left, could resist the ideological upheaval: Sharon is willing to uproot Jewish settlements, he is about to establish an historic precedent!

The disengagement plan, if implemented, may change the bi-polar Egyptian-Jordanian approach and establish a common front. This could strain yet further relations between Israel and these two countries. Egypt, although supporting Israeli withdrawal from any part of the occupied territories, is far from willing to adopt a plan that will anchor the biggest Palestinian refugee camp, the Gaza Strip, at its doorstep, with no Israeli or Palestinian authority to rule it. And Jordan is fearful that American endorsement of the disengagement plan may create a newly configured West Bank, one that eventually may encourage part of the Palestinian population to seek refuge in Jordan. To demonstrate his disapproval of the plan, King Abdullah, in an unprecedented step, postponed his visit to the White House until he received clarifications from President Bush.

For the moment, though the disengagement plan seems dead, it has succeeded in shifting the parallelogram of forces. Jordan and Egypt now share an interest in promoting an “Arab” plan rather than letting Israel throw wild cards on the table that may endanger what they perceive as their national interests.

Israel's two Arab peace partners, relying on the American prescription for the outcome of the war against Iraq, have been deeply disappointed. The American "promise" was precise, and was taken seriously by all parties: a victorious war on Iraq would produce a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Now Jordan and Egypt realize that the war on Iraq has gone beyond merely failing to deliver the promised peace process. They find themselves unable even to use their relations with Israel as leverage to facilitate additional peace treaties. The war on Iraq has put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner and released Israel from its commitment to the roadmap.-Published 20/5/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Zvi Bar'el is the Middle Eastern affairs analyst for Haaretz daily, Israel.

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