US working to strengthen ties with Jordan
President Joe Biden praised King Abdullah II of Jordan as a stalwart ally in a “tough neighborhood” as the two leaders huddled at the White House on Monday, a meeting that came at a pivotal moment for both leaders in the Middle East.
Jordan’s King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to visit the Biden White House and analysts say the visit helped in resetting relations with the kingdom – a key Middle East ally for Washington – shaken during former President Donald Trump’s tenure.
Meanwhile, Biden, who has put much of his foreign policy focus on China and Russia in the early going, faces some difficult issues in the Middle East. He is dealing with stepped-up attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militias at the same moment that his administration is trying to nudge Iran back to the negotiating table to revive the nuclear agreement that Donald Trump abandoned during his presidency.
“You have always been there, and we will always be there for Jordan,” Biden said during an Oval Office meeting with Abdullah and his son, the Crown Prince Hussein.
Abdullah, for his part, praised Biden for “setting the standard” internationally in the battle against COVID-19. The U.S. delivered 500,000 vaccines to Jordan days ahead of the king’s visit. The king also appeared to make clear that he was looking to reset the U.S. – Jordan relationship after a four bumpy years with Trump.
“You can always count on me, my country, and many of our colleagues in the region,” Abdullah said.
The two leaders discussed the situation in Syria — more than 1 million Syrian refugees have fled the war-ravaged nation for Jordan — and a wobbly security situation in Iraq, an administration official said. At least eight drone attacks have targeted the U.S. military presence in Iraq since Biden took office in January, as well as 17 rocket attacks.
Analysts also think that Jordan could house U.S. troops after they withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Jordan made public a defense agreement with the U.S. in March that permits free entry of American forces, aircraft and vehicles into the kingdom.
Israel crucial to partnership
The most fundamental aspect and driver of the US-Jordan strategic partnership, at least from the US’s side, is the importance of Jordan in maintaining a favorable geopolitical environment in the Middle East for Israel, who is the US’s closest partner in the region.
Relations between Jordan and Israel are slowly returning to normal after last month’s election of Naftali Bennett as prime minister, with his government seeking to ameliorate ties with Amman as a foreign policy priority.
The two countries, which have a 1994 peace agreement, have been at loggerheads during the tenure of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu due to a range of disputes between him and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, including the latter’s opposition to Donald Trump’s controversial Middle East plan and his tense relation with the Saudi crown prince.
The tit-for-tat row between Israel and the Hashemite kingdom had reached a peak in March with Israel’s decision to cancel Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem.
The decision led Amman to deny Netanyahu’s helicopter access to Jordanian airspace the very next day, as he was headed to the United Arab Emirates. Netanyahu then allegedly refused to supply Jordan with water in retaliation. However, he reportedly changed his mind after a call from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi.
The election of a new Israeli prime minister and the advent of the Biden administration has arguably changed the equation.
Mamdouh Abadi, former deputy prime minister of Jordan, said that Washington is taking advantage of the change in Israeli leadership to bring the two Middle Eastern countries closer.
“There is good chemistry between the Jordanian and American leaders. Today the US is trying to push forward peace between Jordan and Israel now that there is a majority in the government that is opposed to Netanyahu,” he told Middle East Eye.
“If the Americans pressure Israel, there will surely be a change in stalled issues, such as the two-state solution and settlement expansion. Jordan can play a crucial role in restarting the talks with Israel,” he added.
In the latest sign of detente, Bennett has turned to water to cool off the relationship with the Hashemite kingdom. He even met secretly with King Abdullah II earlier this month, and informed the king that Israel is willing to sell water to Jordan.
Jordan is witnessing a severe water crisis this year due to a poor rainy season. Earlier this year, Jordan had to scrap a bilateral project with Israel to build a water conveyance system linking the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The project would have supplied electricity and desalinated water to both sides. The deal was agreed to, under Netanyahu, back in 2013, but strained ties between the two countries had finally derailed the project. Jordan is now looking into other solutions including building a water desalination station at the Red Sea port of Aqaba.
Since he formed his first government in 1996, Netanyahu, who opposed the Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestinians, had underestimated ties with Israel’s closest neighbor, Jordan, with which Israel shares a 360-kilometer (224-mile) border. While there was no personal chemistry between the king and Netanyahu, Jordan and Israel continued to work closely at the security, military, intelligence and counterterrorism levels.
Netanyahu policies were anathema to Jordan for he stood against everything the king believed in, particularly in relation to finding an equitable solution to the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu was categorically opposed to the two-state solution, freezing or dismantling illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 that offered Israel normalization with the Arab countries but only under the land-for-peace formula.
But one major player who may succeed in resetting Jordan-Israel ties will be Biden, who is pushing both sides to come closer as he seeks to roll back most of Trump’s regional policies, especially with regard to the Palestinians. It is fair to say that the new administration in Washington is drawing a new regional role for Jordan, not only in relation to the Palestinians but also in connection to Iraq’s attempt to distance itself from Iran under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Jordan is also providing key logistical support to the US military as it withdraws from Afghanistan and closes bases in Qatar.
It now looks like Israel-Jordan ties are heading upwards as Israel and Jordan have reached a deal for the Jewish state to sell an unprecedented amount of water to the kingdom, while significantly boosting Jordanian exports to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Water resource cooperation has been a core issue between Israel and Jordan since a 1994 peace deal, but relations between the neighbours have frayed in recent years.
At a meeting held just inside the Jordanian border, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and his counterpart Ayman Safadi approved Israel’s sale of 50 million cubic metres of water to its neighbour.
Statements from both governments confirmed the sale, and said the final details of the transaction would be concluded in the coming days.
Lapid described Jordan as an “important partner” for Israel, and said he was committed to strengthening ties.
Biden trying to revive weakened relations
US-Jordan ties took a hit under US President Donald Trump. The perception was that the Trump administration’s close ties with Netanyahu and the Gulf came at the expense of Jordan.
Abdullah had a difficult relationship with Trump, who he saw as undercutting any chance for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians with his 2017 declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He also chaffed at the Trump administration’s pursuit of what officials called the Abraham Accords deals with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Morocco that normalized relations with Israel but left out the Palestinians.
During his 22 years in power, King Abdullah has been seen by American presidents as a moderate, reliable ally in the Middle East, often playing the role of envoy from the Arab world in Washington.
That special relationship ended with Mr. Trump, who favored working with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States instead.
“Trump’s departure is a huge relief to him,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Biden is trying to revive Jordan’s role as an important player and central US ally in the Middle East, while reversing Trump’s attempts to make the Gulf countries take this role. Biden has, as was expected, toned down ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to a lesser extent.
Biden needs a strategic anchor in the Middle East, and Jordan has the historic reliability and chemistry with the Biden administration to fulfill this role once again.