September 15, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 738

Jordan's Ambiguous Stance on the Palestinians' U.N. Bid for Statehood

September 15, 2011 | By L. Barkan*
Palestinians, Jordan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 738


The Arab press has recently reported a cooling of relations between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA), against the backdrop of Jordan's opposition to Palestinian plans to appeal to the U.N. for recognition of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. While Amman supports the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, it calls for such a state to be achieved via negotiations with Israel, so that all permanent status issues are addressed and so that Jordan's interests in the issues of refugees, Jerusalem, borders, and water are protected. Jordan's concern is that any diplomatic move from which it is excluded could lead to a resolution without ensuring the right of return for Palestinian refugees, whose numbers in Jordan are greater than in any other Arab state, or to the creation of an "alternative homeland" for the Palestinians in Jordan.

In 1988, Jordan's King Hussein announced that Jordan would disengage from the West Bank, "dismantling the legal and administrative links between the two banks" of the Jordan River, thereby relinquishing any Jordanian claims to sovereignty over the West Bank and any authority vis-à-vis the PLO. With this historic announcement, the monarch renounced his dreams of a federation of the east and west banks of the Jordan River, and expressed his support for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank. However, Jordan now fears that despite King Hussein's move, Jordan could still be forced to pay the price for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The following report will provide an overview of Jordan's stance on the planned Palestinian bid for recognition of statehood in the U.N., and on the Palestinian leadership's diplomatic conduct.

Jordan Supports Palestinian Statehood – But Only if All Permanent Status Issues are Resolved

Several reports in recent months have indicated that Jordan opposes the Palestinian plan to appeal to the U.N. for recognition of a unilaterally declared state for fear that this might harm its own interests, and that it has attempted to dissuade the Palestinians from moving forward with this plan. Apparently, though, these attempts have been in vain. On June 28, 2011, a senior official in the Jordanian government stated that his country would oppose the U.N. bid, since this move would threaten Jordanian interests in terms of refugees, water, borders, and Jerusalem.[1] On August 30, Palestinian sources verified that although Jordan had advised PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas – and not for the first time – to reconsider the U.N. bid because it might endanger the right of return, the Palestinians had disregarded his counsel and would follow through with their plans.[2]

At the official level, the Jordanians carefully expressed their support for the Palestinians' statehood aspirations, and took care also to deny reports concerning their reservations. Some openly stated that Jordan supported the U.N. bid, in line with the Arab League's backing of the move, while others limited themselves to expressing Jordan's general support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. All these statements, however, came with the caveat that statehood must include the resolution of all permanent status issues that directly affected Jordan: refugees, Jerusalem, borders, and water. The Jordanians stressed that such a permanent agreement could only be reached via negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, with Jordanian involvement.

For this reason, Jordan's expressions of support for the U.N. bid seem to be mere lip service. It should be noted that the Palestinians themselves have consistently stressed that following their U.N. bid, whatever its results, they will return to negotiations, under the proper conditions, in order to reach a comprehensive arrangement with Israel. Unlike the Jordanians, the Palestinians do not believe that recognition of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders without an agreement with Israel will impinge upon their rights, particularly in reference to refugees' rights.[3]

Jordanian envoy to the PA 'Awwad Al-Sarhan said, "Jordan, as everyone knows, is part of the Arab move [in the U.N., which must]... protect the rights of the Jordanian kingdom, in agreement and coordination with the PA and while addressing all issues related to the permanent status agreement – such as water, Jerusalem, and the refugees. A Palestinian state is a supreme interest for Jordan, which has never adopted any stance different from the Arab consensus."[4]

On July 6, 2011, Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammad Al-Kayid denied reports that Jordan opposed a Palestinian state. He said that coordination between his country and the PA was continuing at all levels, that Jordan supported the Palestinians' aspirations to establish an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and that this was a supreme interest for Jordan, especially with regard to all things connected to the permanent status agreement. He added, however, that the ideal way to achieve this goal was through direct negotiations, according to a set timetable and based on international legitimacy and agreed-upon sources of authority for the peace process, particularly the Arab peace initiative.[5]

Lukewarm Jordan-PA Relations

Jordan's expressions of support for the Palestinians, reserved as they were, could not conceal the tensions between the sides, as evidenced by reports that Jordan was taking steps to revoke the citizenship of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, among them some senior officials.[6] A website close to Hamas reported that Jordan was gradually revoking the privileges of PA senior officials and their families. The website claimed that one of the reasons for the tensions between the two sides – in addition to the PA's diplomatic conduct – was PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas's rejection of Jordanian involvement in the reconciliation attempts between Fatah and Hamas, which ended in the signing of an intra-Palestinian reconciliation document in Cairo in early May 2011. The clauses of the document have yet to be implemented.[7]

On August 7, 2011, for the first time in three months, 'Abbas was received in the Jordanian royal palace. Some saw 'Abbas's absence from the palace as yet another sign of the cooled relations between the two sides,[8] and it would seem that this meeting was meant to dispel this image by painting a picture of Jordanian support for the Palestinians and mutual coordination. Consistent with Jordan's stance prior to the meeting, the king emphasized the need for negotiations with Israel, and did not express clear support for the U.N. bid. During the meeting, he said that Jordan supported the PA's aspirations to establish a state, but stressed that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must be resolved by addressing all the permanent status issues, first and foremost the refugees and Jerusalem, in order to achieve a just and comprehensive peace that would restore the Palestinian rights and put an end to tensions in the region.[9]

In an August 17 article in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, Jordanian journalist 'Oraib Al-Rantawi wrote that Jordan wished to avoid an open clash with the Palestinians, so as to avoid being seen as foreshadowing the expected U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council: "Jordan's diplomatic [circles] are not enthusiastic about the Palestinian leadership's U.N. bid... but neither are they taking a stand against it. First, they do not want 'to sing outside the choir of the Arab consensus' (overtly, at least). Second, such a stand would have no effect on the PA's position or the outcome of its U.N. bid. [Jordanian] diplomacy has for many years avoided open clashes with the official positions of the PLO and PA leadership, which are the sole representatives of the Palestinian people. What is certain is that [Jordan] does not want its positions to foreshadow the expected American veto in the Security Council...

"Usually, disagreements between Jordan and the PLO are exposed by Palestinian senior officials... This time, we saw the leaks, hints, and reports coming from the Jordanian side, primarily from the prime minister... This reflects the officials' distress at the Palestinian insistence on seeing this matter [i.e., the U.N. bid] through."[10]

Fears that Palestinian Refugees Will Be Permanently Settled in Jordan

Al-Rantawi's statements regarding Jordanian Prime Minister Ma'rouf Al-Bakhit referred to the latter's harsh May 3, 2011 speech, in which he warned the Palestinians against harming Jordan's interests and rights, stressing that a Palestinian state without the right of return and reparations for refugees was not the state to hope for. The issue of the refugees is a sensitive one for the Jordanians, who fear that unsound Palestinian moves – whether unilateral or through negotiations – may undermine the right of return, as well as reparations for the refugees and for the countries which have hosted them.

In his speech, Bakhit said: "Jordan will strongly support the international efforts to declare a Palestinian state that will meet the expectations and ambitions of the Palestinian people, and that will be established on a clear and defined basis of international legitimacy [i.e., U.N. resolutions] and on the sources of authority for the peace process – a state that will ensure the right of return and a just solution to the refugee problem... On this basis, if the possibility of a new concession by any side is taken into account, it must be explicitly reiterated that a Palestinian state without a guarantee of the right of return, compensation for the refugees, or Jerusalem, is not the longed-for Palestinian state... What interests us Jordanians is recognition of the right of return, which is no less important than its implementation – and even more important. The Unification of the Two Banks mandated the need to defend the historic right of the Palestinian people in Palestine – that is, the right of return."[11]

In an August 17 article in Al-Quds, 'Oraib Al-Rantawi wrote: "[Jordan's] reservations about the Palestinian [U.N. bid] are rooted in its belief that this Palestinian move might remove from the agenda the issues of the permanent [status] agreement, primarily the issue of the refugees, their rights, and the rights of the countries hosting [them] – chiefly Jordan. The rest of the issues (the borders, Jerusalem, and [security] arrangements) take second place [in Jordan's eyes], not because they are of secondary importance or of no importance [at all], but because they do not impact Jordan's politics and economy as the refugees [issues] does."[12]

The disagreement between the sides was manifest in the PA's exclusion of Jordan from its recent diplomatic moves. The Jordanians, who have historically maintained close ties with the PA, are concerned that this exclusion will render them incapable to prevent the Palestinians from taking decisions detrimental to Jordan's interests. They have stressed that Jordan has the right to represent the Palestinian refugees living within it, who, unlike their brothers in other Arab states, have full citizenship, and that Jordan will not cede this right to anyone else.

In his May 3 speech, Prime Minister Bakhit said: "We will not allow anyone a monopoly in representing this problem. It is Jordan that represents its residents, and most of the Palestinian refugees are part of the state of Jordan. I will emphasize here that Jordan's relationship with the different sides, including the Palestinians, is not an emotional one, but a political one based on its supreme interests. Anyone who serves these [interests] is an ally of Jordan, and anyone who tries to relinquish them is considered hostile, whatever their intentions or feelings may be..."[13]

Jihad Al-Momani, columnist for the Jordanian daily Al-Rai, wrote: "While it is true that we do not have to enter the Palestinians' meeting rooms with the Americans or the Israelis, we do believe that it is one of our major interests is to know the details, and we are entitled to know exactly what the Palestinians plan to do this September. True, there is Arab-Palestinian coordination, as manifest in the Arab Summit meetings, which the Jordanians attended. However, Jordan's [standing] there was no different from [the standing of] any other Arab state. This [is at odds with] the fact that Jordanian-Palestinian relations must be unique, [both] at the present sensitive stage, on the eve of establishing a state ... and following [statehood].

"The most important aspect of these relations is coordination [and the building of] trust between the sides, especially... since the experience of the Oslo [Accords], which irrevocably proved [the Palestinians'] willingness to sign special bilateral deals with the Israelis while disregarding Jordan's interests... In this complex equation, each side has its own special interests, which is why each side is entitled to take its own path in protecting these interests. The sole and fixed truth remains clear and immutable: Jordan had rights in Palestine which, following the decision to disengage [from the West Bank], became interests [rather than rights]. Chief of these interests is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state that can satisfy the aspirations of the Palestinian people and its right to self-determination in its own land, [a state] that is also capable of insisting on the rights of the refugees – not just as the PA sees them now, but [also] as they are seen by Jordan, the country hosting the largest number of Palestinian refugees, and by the other host countries. The PA does not have the right to speak on behalf of these countries."[14]

Fears of an Alternative Homeland Solution

By extension of their concerns that the U.N. bid might endanger the right of return, the Jordanians greatly fear an "alternative homeland" solution – a proposal by rightwing elements in Israel to regard Jordan as the Palestinian state. Currently, Jordan's Hashemite minority, who see themselves as the indigenous Jordanians, rule over a Palestinian majority that largely emigrated to the country during and following the 1948 war with Israel. The Hashemites have long been concerned over losing control of government to the Palestinians.

In a July 6, 2011 meeting between 'Abbas and a delegation of Jordanian MPs, the head of the delegation said that Jordan hoped for the U.N. bid to succeed, but stressed that his country rejected the calls from Israel to turn Jordan into an alternative homeland for the Palestinians.[15]

In a September 11 meeting with intellectuals and academics, King 'Abdallah said: "The alternative homeland exists only in the minds of the faint-hearted. The so-called 'Jordanian option' has no place in the Jordanians' lexicon. [All] the talk about this issue is a political delusion and an impossible fantasy. Jordan is Jordan, and Palestine is Palestine... We support the Palestinians' right to establish a Palestinian state. We have never changed our political [stance], nor will we change it [in the future], and the matter of an alternative homeland must not even be part of the discussion... We must not discuss this issue very year... Today, Jordan and the future [state of] Palestine are stronger than Israel, and today it is the Israeli who is afraid...

"I want to reassure everyone that I did not hear from any American official – not Clinton, not Bush, and not Obama – nor from anyone else, any [statements] pressuring Jordan to resolve the Palestinian issue at Jordan's expense. I want to reassure everyone that Jordan will not be anyone's alternative homeland. Would it make sense for Jordan to be turned into someone's alternative homeland while we sit here without lifting a finger? We have an army, and we are prepared to fight for our homeland and for Jordan's future. We must speak forcefully, and we will not allow anyone among us to even harbor this notion.... Jordan will defend its rights and its vision of a permanent status arrangement that will assure the establishment of an independent, viable Palestinian state on the Palestinian national land, with Jerusalem as its capital, and a just implementation of the right of return and reparations."[16]

Jihad Al-Momani wrote in an August 7 article: "The Jordanian state is now reformulating the manner in which Jordanian-Palestinian relations are expressed, stressing the clearest Jordanian stance since the decision was issued in 1988 to disengage [from the West Bank]. The [ties] between us and [our] Palestinian brothers are more than ordinary fraternal bonds; dictated by deeply rooted ties, they make [our] two peoples almost one. However, [these two peoples] are not a single political unit. After all these years of struggle, the Palestinian people has the right to determine its political future without any partners or patrons. Jordan, which has recognized this right while committing itself to the Arab decision – and is content with supporting the Palestinian brothers until they achieve all their rights on their national soil – today rejects any intervention which might revive what was known as the 'Jordanian option,' and rejects any resolution of the Palestinian issue on [Jordanian] soil (an alternative homeland). Jordan opposes the partial options [proposed as] alternatives to a full resolution, and urges the PA not to relinquish any of the steadfast principles of the Palestinian cause, especially [regarding] the refugee problem."[17]

Internal Jordanian Criticism of Opposition to U.N. Bid

Statements by Jordanian officials, and the reports on Jordan's opposition to the Palestinian U.N. bid, evoked criticism from various sectors in Jordan. Former deputy prime minister Jawwad Al-'Anani, who is of Palestinian origin, said that Jordan had no right to restrict the decisions of the Palestinian people, whatever they may be. The Palestinians, he said, are entitled to take any path they choose toward establishing their state, which is a supreme Jordanian interest, as was ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. He added that nothing – not even Jordan's exclusion from the discussion on the permanent status issues and on the U.N. bid – justified Jordan's statements against the Palestinians, which only harmed Jordan's standing. At the same time, Al-'Anani called on the Palestinians not to harm Jordan or sacrifice this country's interests in order to achieve temporary goals in the conflict with Israel. He stressed the need to take clear steps toward resolving the issues common to Jordan and the Palestinians, and to achieve a resolution that would ensure Jordanian rights following the establishment of a Palestinian state.[18]

Jordanian historian 'Ali Mahafaza claimed that any opposition to the declaration of a Palestinian state – whether unilateral or as part of a comprehensive agreement – reflected a misunderstanding of the Palestinian cause, and that Jordan's supreme interest required it to support, rather than hinder, the choice of the Palestinian people.[19]

In an August 17 article in Al-Quds, 'Oraib Al-Rantawi complained that in offering the Palestinians an alternative to the U.N. bid, the only option Jordan could come up with was negotiations with Israel, even though these negotiations have produced no results: "It is regrettable that Jordan, while opposing the Palestinian move, is not proposing anything other than to try what has already been tried. It proposes a return to negotiations, which are described as the only way to [achieve] a final and agreed-upon solution... This, in my opinion, is precisely the source of Jordan's distress. Jordan knows before anyone, and better than anyone, that Israel is the one who caused the negotiations to fail, not the Palestinians... [It knows better than anyone] that there is no partner in Israel for negotiations and for a peace process... and that, after more than 20 years of negotiations, no results have been produced in the Palestinian track. Jordan knows that, even according to the most just and optimistic paradigms, in the foreseeable future any solution to the refugee problem will not go beyond limited reparations, which will most likely [go] to the host countries rather than [to the refugees themselves].

"Jordan knows that foregoing the U.N. bid does not automatically mean returning to the negotiating table. The Obama administration, the Quartet, and the international community have [all] failed to get Netanyahu and the [Israeli] right to give in and mend their ways. That being the case, what makes the Jordanian diplomats think that negotiations are still a [viable] path and option – and in fact a better option than the U.N. bid?...

"We would have liked the criticism of the Palestinian side to be accompanied by advice, ideas, and 'road maps' that will make Israel pay more dearly for the occupation, and by pressure on Israel until [it] returns to serious negotiations. But for negotiations to be the beginning and the end... is a proposal we hope will never reach the ears of the Palestinian leadership.

"For the past 10 years, the Jordanian officials have burdened us with stories... about a 'Plan B' they were preparing in case the negotiations for a state failed, and as a buffer against harm to Jordanian interests. [But] the option of negotiations has been dead for years, and the buffer is crumbling before our eyes, yet there is no sign of any 'Plan B' – unless negotiations, and negotiations alone, are the essence of the Plan A, Plan B, and perhaps even Plan C..."[20]

*L. Barkan is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Bayan (UAE), June 28, 2011.

[2] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), August 30, 2011.

[3] A debate recently arose among the Palestinians over how U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state might affect the right of return and the standing of the PLO. The issue arose after Guy Goodwin-Gill, a professor of public international law at Oxford University, sent a legal opinion to the Palestinian leaders warning that a U.N. recognition of statehood could harm the PLO's status as the sole representative of the Palestinians worldwide, and could also leave Palestinian refugees living outside the future state without U.N. representation, and harm their right to self-determination and to return to their original homes., August 24, 2011.

[4] Wafa (Palestinian Authority), September 5, 2011.

[5] Al-Sabil (Jordan), July 6, 2011.

[6] The details of this issue remain unclear. Reports have it that, further to its 1988 decision to disengage from the West Bank, Jordan is revoking the citizenship of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. However, it has also been reported that Jordan has granted citizenship to 60,000 Palestinians who had held Jordanian passports prior to this decision. Addressing these rumors on August 13, 2011, Jordanian Interior Minister Mazen Al-Saket said that, for the time being, his ministry would not revoke the citizenship of Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin, other than those who have requested to revoke it or who have Palestinian citizenship. He said that the rumors about the 60,000 Palestinians who have been granted citizenship are exaggerated. Al-Dustour (Jordan), August 13, 2011. Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi (Jordan), June 25, 2011.

[7], June 26, 2011.

[8] For instance, Nabil Ghishan, columnist for the independent Jordanian daily Al-Arab Al-Yawm, wrote the day after the meeting: "It is no secret that relations between Jordan and the PA have cooled... This is the first reception of the Palestinian president in the royal palace in three months... Today it is important that the Palestinian leadership know that Jordan's stance on the Palestinian refugees is clear, and that under no circumstances will it accept any solution that circumvents their rights." Al-Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), August 8, 2011.

[9] Al-Dustour (Jordan), August 8, 2011.

[10] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), August 17, 2011.

[11], May 4, 2011. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.3882, "Jordanian Prime Minister: The Right of Return is the Historic Right of the Palestinian People," June 1, 2011, Jordanian Prime Minister: The Right of Return is the Historic Right of the Palestinian People.

[12] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), August 17, 2011.

[13], May 4, 2011. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.3882, "Jordanian Prime Minister: The Right of Return is the Historic Right of the Palestinian People," June 1, 2011, Jordanian Prime Minister: The Right of Return is the Historic Right of the Palestinian People.

[14] Al-Rai (Jordan), August 7, 2011.

[15] Wafa (Palestinian Authority), July 6, 2011.

[16] Al-Rai (Jordan), September 12, 2011.

[17] Al-Rai (Jordan), August 7, 2011.

[18] Al-Sabil (Jordan), July 6, 2011.

[19] Al-Sabil (Jordan), July 6, 2011.

[20] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), August 17, 2011.

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