Jordan’s strategic interests in light of US-Saudi negotiations

on normalizing relations with Israel

Presently, the Biden administration is earnestly pursuing concrete progress in its discussions with Riyadh concerning the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Tel Aviv. The conversation no longer revolves around the mere possibility of normalization but centers on the terms of the imminent agreement to be reached by the three parties involved. It appears that the fundamental concept of Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords has gained approval, with current attention directed toward finalizing the date for the normalization agreement’s signing.

Numerous inquiries now arise in the ongoing negotiations among the three parties. These encompass queries regarding the price Saudi Arabia aims to secure through this agreement, alongside concerns sparked by leaked information hinting at an impending signing of the accord. Furthermore, questions loom over the potential consequences of this agreement on the Palestinian issue, the future of the Palestinian cause, the evolution of Jordan’s foreign policy, its regional role, national security, and the broader implications for the Middle East map and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

According to these developments, this position paper comes after the PSI held a discussion session on August 21, 2023, which included researchers, academics, and experts, subject to the Chatham House rules, to discuss the possible repercussions of the deal on the Palestinian cause and the available Jordanian options, in addition to leaked information that talks about ongoing and advanced discussions between the United States and Saudi Arabia on the latter’s accession to the Abraham Accords. 

Serious U.S. Efforts to Bring About an Imminent Agreement

Since its arrival, the current US administration seemed convinced that negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides or any serious effort on the Palestinian file would not succeed amid the ongoing circumstances, as it sought to base its position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on two main points:

  • The first is to maintain the greatest degree of calm until conditions are created for the resumption of negotiations on the basis of the two-state solution.
  • Second, Saudi Arabia’s introduction to the Abraham Accords is the Democrat administration’s grand prize ahead of the upcoming U.S. elections.

This sheds light on one of the key rationales behind the present emphasis on dialogues and negotiations between the Saudis and Americans, rather than exclusively between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Alongside Saudi Arabia’s objectives in securing gains from the agreement, this involvement of the American side in the talks is notable. Leading this effort are senior White House personnel, spearheaded by Pete McGurk, the prominent Middle East official, who is actively advocating for the expeditious signing of the agreement.

With such unbridled American desire, there is talk of a very close date for the signing of the agreement, a conversation that may not be very accurate considering the ambitious Saudi demands, which focus mainly on:  

  • A peaceful nuclear programme, which presents a formidable challenge for the United States, given the need for Congressional approval. This is a contentious issue that garners bipartisan resistance, with both Republicans and Democrats hesitant to grant Saudi Arabia the capacity to enrich uranium. This cautionary stance is rooted in the concern that such enrichment capabilities could potentially enable Saudi Arabia to pursue nuclear weapons in the future, thereby disturbing the delicate military equilibrium with Israel. This is further complicated by Israel’s steadfast opposition to any nuclear agreement involving Saudi Arabia.
  • A mutual defense treaty, which forces the United States to defend Saudi Arabia in the event of any external attack, a demand Israel has also previously made for a NATO-like treaty that requires the approval of two-thirds of the Senate (67 members). In light of the democratic presence that constantly criticizes the human rights record, which may place conditions on Saudi Arabia, it raises doubts about the latter’s approval of such a treaty.       
  • Providing Saudi Arabia with advanced weapons, particularly F-35 aircraft.

In the face of these Saudi demands, the agreement seems to necessarily not only need Saudi-American negotiations, but also negotiations between the White House administration and Congress, both Democratic and Republican, which would not lead to an imminent or “close to near” agreement, but current expectations indicate that the negotiations will take between 6 to 12 months to reach an agreement. 

Despite these prevailing expectations, an alternate perspective and a contrasting scenario are being articulated, suggesting that the agreement might not come to fruition, despite its initial approval in principle. This skepticism is rooted in the evolving landscape of Saudi foreign policy, marked by a strategic diversification that encompasses bolstering ties with China, joining the BRICS economic alliance, and cultivating relations with Iran and Turkey. These transformative shifts could potentially introduce a dynamic of reverse tension.

Moreover, there are lingering questions about the role Saudi Arabia aspires to assume in the Arab and Muslim worlds in the future. This includes an examination of whether Riyadh genuinely intends to enter into an agreement that could provide President Biden with a significant advantage leading up to the U.S. elections. In parallel, the U.S. administration is actively pressuring Israel’s current prime minister to effect changes in his government coalition and alleviate the pressure being exerted on the Palestinian Authority. This raises doubts about Tel Aviv’s willingness to acquiesce to such demands, adding to the uncertainty and the potential for a scenario where progress falters.

The likelihood of reaching an agreement may indeed hinge on the adjustment of conditions and understandings between Saudi Arabia and the United States from their initial starting point. This adjustment becomes all the more crucial in light of the agreement’s acknowledgment. Presently, Saudi Arabia is actively working to reinforce regional stability and cooperative understandings as part of its broader vision for the future. This approach is juxtaposed with the American aspiration to counter the rising influence of China, which has already begun to impact its Middle Eastern allies. The evolving dynamics in this delicate balance of interests will play a pivotal role in determining the ultimate fate of the agreement.

Question of the Palestinian presence in the agreement

It does not seem that the Palestinian issue is receiving much attention in the  Riyadh-Washington-Tel Aviv talks, as the Abraham Accords that were signed and are intended to be completed are not in the context of the Palestinian issue, and the issue may not exceed a small part of the negotiation in front of the other issues, which reflects the decline of regional interest in the Palestinian issue as a central issue for the Arab system.

Riyadh is pledging to resume financial support for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah after it had ceased, leaving it with zero dollars. Additionally, it is hosting a Palestinian delegation to discuss the demands of the Palestinian Authority, which, in turn, has chosen to engage in talks rather than staying away from the ongoing equation. Leaked information indicates that the Palestinian demands include relocating certain parts from Area C to Area B to expand the Authority’s control over West Bank territories. Furthermore, the demands encompass the U.S. reopening its consulate in Jerusalem, which was closed by the Trump administration and was responsible for managing relations with the Palestinians, recognizing Palestine as a member state in the United Nations, resuming Palestinian-Israeli final status negotiations with a clear timeline, and Saudi Arabia’s insistence on opening a consulate in Jerusalem, despite recently appointing a non-resident ambassador to Ramallah.

As a result, likely, any agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel may not necessarily include fundamental and impactful provisions related to the Palestinian cause. Israel does not appear prepared to exhibit flexibility on the ground, particularly with its uncompromising government in place. Saudi Arabia’s recent appointment of an ambassador to Palestine may primarily convey symbolic and populist messages, while its commitments to the Palestinians regarding the Arab Peace Initiative may be limited to continuing to support the initiative’s objectives, similar to how some countries that signed the Abraham Accords in 2020 have done.

Jordan’s upcoming options face worrying developments

Perhaps the expected agreement explicitly expresses the end of the two-state solution as well; only Jordan, the Palestinian side, and to some extent the Egyptian side are left to advocate it, as the entry of states into the Abraham Accords does not ultimately oblige the Israeli side to withdraw from Arab lands. These indicators may require the search for all alternatives, especially since this coincides with the Palestinian side’s lack of confidence in its leadership and is now working alone and independent of it. 

 The relationship between Amman and Riyadh, although it seems to be negative on the surface, is proceeding positively, but there are differences between the Jordanian and Saudi policies in looking at many regional files. As for the Israeli side, although the relationship at the military and security levels is proceeding normally, it is today going through its worst political phase with the most right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli side has proven its unwillingness and seriousness to involve Jordan in any promising economic development projects, and today it is consolidating facts on the ground that would threaten Jordan’s national security in the foreseeable future.

 Jordan views the expected agreement as an imminent danger whose impact goes beyond the Abraham Accords signed earlier, for several considerations:

  1. Vital structural considerations related to Jordan’s strategic value in the region and the future of its regional role; the success of Saudi-Israeli normalization means a significant weakening of Jordan’s regional role.
  2. Considerations related to the future of the Palestinian Authority, which is going through its worst phase and is under increasing pressure, which may make it collapse, and thus will result in chaos and humanitarian conditions that Jordan will pay for in many respects.  
  3. Considerations related to the impact of the agreement on the future of Jordan’s foreign relations, and its influential ability in the Palestinian cause.
  4. Jordan’s realization that the completion of the Saudi-Israeli deal will drag behind it a broad Arab and Islamic openness to Israel, which will significantly weaken any political solution to the Palestinian issue, and thus enhance the scenario of the Jordanian option and transfer of Palestinians.

These fears of the upcoming agreement open the door to ongoing questions related to the upcoming Jordanian options in the face of transformations and developments in the region and international policies regarding its issues, as the Jordanian approach and discourse are still adhering to the two-state solution and ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, limiting the relationship with the Palestinian side to the authority in Ramallah, and the continuous reliance on the policy of adapting to the realities imposed by Israel on the ground, amid the absence of any settlement projects on the table, whether from the American, Israeli or even Jordanian side. Jordan faces a fate that requires it to deal with these developments and study all possible scenarios and alternatives, which puts it in front of a set of options that may be:

  1. Jordan’s integration and adaptation into the new regional arrangements and continuing to keep pace with the Israeli side, out of strategic imperative, to expand Jordan’s options and the futility and realism of resistance, and to ensure the survival of aid coming from the United States, in addition to Jordan’s inability to bear the burdens of the Palestinian cause alone in light of the challenges it faces internally and externally.

However, the problem with this option is the Israeli side’s unwillingness to show any flexibility with the Jordanian and Palestinian sides, and the solutions it proposes are at the expense of Jordan; since Israel does not want a Palestinian state in the West Bank or a demographic majority, and its solutions today are limited to the option of limiting Palestinians to cantons or the option of transferring them, and therefore these solutions will add more burdens that the Jordanian side is trying to avoid.

In addition to the ineffectiveness of the hypothesis that economic projects will be a catalyst for peace, the realities presented today on the ground tell us that the Israeli side was not serious about involving Jordan in its economic and development projects. Added to this is the state of estrangement in the Jordanian-Saudi relationship and the interruption of Saudi support to the Jordanian treasury for years.   

  • Jordan’s entry into an open confrontation with the Israeli side, on the premise that all the costs that Jordan may pay will not overshadow the existential cost, and all the consequences that may occur as a result of this confrontation will not be as big as the cost that Jordan will pay if the Palestinian issue is resolved at its expense. Thus, Jordan may push for a review of cooperation agreements with the Israeli side, whether on the economic, security and military levels, and the use of direct language away from equivocation or gray against the Israeli side.  
  • Jordan’s transition from the approach of ending the conflict “which is no longer possible” and recognizing the continuity of the status quo “west of the river” to “managing the conflict” with the Israelis there, and playing a more effective role in strengthening the Palestinian situation and engaging more with it, and in this area Jordan may have great pressure cards, but this requires going beyond traditional sayings, opening up more to the various Palestinian elites and forces, not limiting communication with the authority in Ramallah, and to the new generation of Palestinian youth, and playing an active role in managing the Palestinian dialogue and helping to build Palestinian-Palestinian understandings. The obstacle facing the adoption of this strategy today is the state of high tension, which has recently reached the point of estrangement between the Jordanian side and some prominent Palestinian actors for security reasons.

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