March 15, 1999 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 14

Jordanian Policies on the Palestinian Problem - Part I: Relations During the Reign of King Hussein

March 15, 1999 | By Yigal Carmon and Y. Feldner*
Palestinians, Jordan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 14

The death of King Hussein and the abrupt deposition of Crown Prince Hassan, brought the question of the Jordanian regime's stability to the forefront of Middle East politics. Yasser Arafat's unanticipated declaration in favor of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, four days after King Hussein was buried, fueled the fire and aroused the discontent of the Jordanian leadership.

Jordan's Position on the Establishment of an Independent Palestinian State

For more than two decades, Jordan has publicly supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip [hereinafter, the Territories]. This Jordanian strategy crystallized gradually in the years 1974-78 in the context of the important political changes in the Middle East at the time. The Arab and international recognition of the PLO as 'the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians,'[1] the overwhelming PLO victory in the 1976 municipal elections in the Territories, and the unchanged fact that seventy percent of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian origins, made it impossible for Jordan to compete with the PLO over representation of the Palestinians in the Territories without jeopardizing its domestic stability. Furthermore, the rise of the 'Likud' to power in Israel in 1977 was seen by the Jordanians as the loss of any chance for an Israeli withdrawal from the Territories; hence, it weakened Jordanian motivation to engage in a conflict with the PLO on that front.

The Palestinian aspirations for independence, however, increased following the PLO's International and inter-Arab successes, and the gap between these aspirations and the ability to fulfill them was constantly widening. Under these circumstances, the Jordanian leadership reached the realization that unless the Palestinian problem is solved in the Territories through self-determination and the establishment of an independent state, its solution may eventually develop within Jordan's borders. In such a case, Jordan would become "the alternative homeland for the Palestinians," whether due to an Israeli policy leading to a mass Palestinian immigration to Jordan or due to the PLO 's subversive activities against the Hashemite regime, relying on the Palestinian demographic superiority in Jordan.

Although the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the Territories also posed a potential threat to Jordan as a Hashemite kingdom, the Jordanian leadership saw this solution as the lesser of two evils. Therefore, it started facilitating it as a vital Jordanian interest. Consequently, the Jordanian approach toward the PLO changed from the armed confrontation of 1970 to a political dialogue followed by a joint strategy striving to establish an independent Palestinian state in the Territories. Through this policy, Jordan aimed at avoiding the danger of becoming "the alternative homeland" for the Palestinians and focusing the Palestinian national aspirations and struggle on the West Bank of the Jordan River.[2]

The political changes of the 1980's and 1990's, the Intifada and the Oslo Accords, only strengthened Jordan's support of this solution. The succession of monarchs at the beginning of 1999 left this strategy intact, as was re-emphasized in the political principles recently declared by the Jordanian government. Minister of Information, Naser Jodeh, stated that the Palestinians' rights in the peace process are "not only a Palestinian interest, but also a supreme Jordanian interest."[3]

Jordanian-Palestinian Relations at the end of King Hussein's Era

The complex nature of relations between the PLO and Jordan derives both from the Palestinian demographic superiority in Jordan and from the fact that the PLO sees itself as the sole representative of the Palestinians wherever they may be, which, by implication, includes 70 percent of Jordan's population.

King Hussein's policy towards the PLO was caught between contradicting Jordanian interests. It's geopolitical location and demographic structure led Jordan to adopt a pragmatic foreign policy on a whole range of issues, including the Palestinian problem. Palestinian columnist Abdallah Awwad described this situation: "Jordan's secret relations with Tel Aviv did not prevent it from participating in the wars [against Israel]; its relations with the US did not prevent it from siding with Iraq; its relations with Iraq did not prevent Jordan from cautiously cooperating with the American policy... and the military clash with the Palestinians in 1960-70 did not prevent the [eventual] Jordanian recognition of the PLO."[4]

Despite this seemingly self-contradictory Jordanian policy, one element remained constant for three decades: the primary Jordanian interest was to safeguard the integrity and sovereignty of the Jordanian regime. Therefore, notwithstanding its strategic support of a Palestinian state in the Territories and its cooperation with the PLO in this matter in the last two decades, Jordan acted to impede the resurrection of the PLO in the East Bank. The need to protect the integrity of its sovereignty led Jordan to militarily uproot the PLO from Jordan in 1970, and the fear of a PLO revival in Jordan - based on the integration between the population in Jordan and the Territories - was among the factors for Jordan's administrative disengagement from the West Bank in 1988.

The issue of relations between Jordanians and Palestinians has been a taboo subject in the Jordanian media. The PLO's expulsion from Jordan in 1970 stabilized inter-ethnic relations in Jordan. Nonetheless, among both the Jordanians and the Palestinians, there are extremist fringes. These extremists made news recently when a Member of Parliament of Bedouin origin, Ahmad Uweidi Al-'Abbadi, stated that "national unity in Jordan is a big lie" and called upon Palestinians to "pack up and return to their country, because they have become a burden for the kingdom's services and natural resources."[5]

'Middle East International' Correspondent, Sanaa Kamal, reports that the Jordanian criticism of the Palestinian population usually focuses on their relative economic success: "it is not rare for 'original' Jordanians to criticize Palestinians for their monopoly over investments in the Jordanian economy." The Palestinians, on the other hand, reports Kamal, "criticize original Jordanians, for holding the important positions in the government, the army, and the General Security Apparatus." Kamal further reports that sources close to King Hussein said that the King objected to any discussion over 'Who is Jordanian', because this did not only affect Palestinians, but also other ethnic minorities in Jordan, "including the royal family itself which came from the Hijaz [in the Arabian peninsula]."[6]

The deposition of Crown Prince Hassan brought to the surface evidence of inter-ethnic tensions in the kingdom. Prince Hassan, who had earned a clear 'Jordanian' image was accused, after his removal, of employing in his bureau people nurturing anti-Palestinian attitudes.[7] Regardless of the veracity of these accusations, the rise to power of Prince Abdallah, who is married to a Palestinian, was welcomed by Palestinians on both banks of the Jordan River. "Palestinians in Jordan were quick to voice their support for the King's [Hussein] decision," writes the Political Editor of the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, Muhammad Sakhr Abdallah, "and certainly they have their good reasons, based on the personalities of the outgoing Crown Prince, Hassan, and his [incoming] nephew, Prince Abdallah."[8]

The question of whether the establishment of a Palestinian State across the river would destabilize the loyalty of the Palestinian majority to the Hashemite regime is controversial. Some analysts believe that Palestinians in Jordan face "double loyalty" and state that "dormant at present, the problem may rear its head if a Palestinian state is declared."[9] On the other hand, the Jordanian Ambassador to the US, Marwan Al-Muasher, believes that not only does the establishment of a Palestinian state not threaten Jordan, but it is likely to increase its security. Many of the Palestinians living in Jordan, Al-Muasher explains, would feel more at ease with their Jordanian identity when a Palestinian state is established, because they would no longer "feel they would be abandoning the cause of their brethren, cousins, or relatives on the West Bank."[10]

According to this approach - shared by many Palestinians in the Territories - the PLO will not jeopardize Jordan's stability, not even if a Palestinian state is declared, because it does not enjoy the support of the Palestinian population in Jordan. Palestinian writer, 'Ata Al-Qemari, for example, says that "the Palestinians' fears and anger towards Jordan and King Hussein were very much the result of their historic refusal to be governed by anyone and their ambition to have their own entity. Once the bilateral relations proceed in this direction, the danger - whether real or fictitious - of Jordan becoming Palestine is gone."[11]


Decades of conflict between the Hashemites and the Palestinian leadership were ended in the 1970s by a policy of dialogue followed by a joint strategy aiming at the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. This change derives from a genuine Jordanian realization that unless the Palestinian problem is solved in the Territories through self-determination and the establishment of a Palestinian state, its solution may develop within Jordan's borders.

This new policy aims at preventing the possibility of Jordan becoming the "alternative homeland" for the Palestinians and at focusing the Palestinian national aspirations and struggle on the West Bank of the Jordan River. Therefore, a Palestinian state on the West Bank became a vital Jordanian existential interest.

However, the Jordanian-Palestinian strategic cooperation does not extend to the post-independence era. While the Palestinian leadership aspires to a joint Palestinian-Jordanian future, Jordan is not enthusiastic about such a partnership. These conflicting interests between the Palestinians and the Jordanians re-surfaced in the wake of King Hussein's death.

*Yigal Carmon is the President of MEMRI. Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

[1] In the Arab summit in Rabat, Morocco in 1974 and in the UN General Assembly in the same year.

[2] According to An-Anbaa', a Kuwaiti newspaper, on June 11, 1985, King Hussein described Jordan's political choice by stating that "the Jordanian option is a Palestinian state."

[3] Al-Quds, March 3, 1999. Jodeh was in office at the time, but was not part of the new Jordanian government, appointed on March 6, 1999.

[4] Al-Ayyam, February 12, 1999.

[5] Al-Quds, July 26, 1998.

[6] Al-Quds, July 26, 1998.

[7] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, January 24, 1999.

[8] The Jerusalem Times, February 5, 1999.

[9] Said Ghazali, The Jerusalem Times, January 22, 1999.

[10] A Jewish Council for Public Affairs Symposium on the Middle East Peace Process at the Mayflower Hotel, Washington DC, February 22, 1999.

[11]Al-Quds, February 17, 1999.

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