Jordan tones down rhetoric in response to US move against UNRWA

Amid US threats to cut funding for UNRWA, Jordan appears to have opted for quiet diplomatic engagement with the United States rather than a confrontational approach.

al-monitor US President Donald Trump (R) and Jordanian King Abdullah II hold a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, April 5, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Yuri Gripas.

Jan 16, 2018

It took more than a week for a senior Jordanian official to react to US threats to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the international body responsible for the welfare of almost 5 million registered Palestinian refugees. Some 2 million of the refugees reside in Jordan, making the kingdom the biggest host country.

On Jan. 2, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley threatened that the United States would cut funding to UNRWA, estimated at $319 million annually, in retaliation for the decision by the Palestinian leadership to go to the Security Council and the General Assembly to extract a resolution condemning President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 proclamation recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. On Jan. 5, reports circulated that the United States had suspended a $125 million payment to UNRWA because of the Palestinians' refusal to return to peace talks, but the State Department said the decision was still being reviewed.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi only put forward the kingdom’s position in a phone call to UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl on Jan. 11. He was quoted by Ammon News as saying that it was necessary to “continue to support the agency in order to maintain its services to refugees whose case should be resolved within the final status talks based on international laws, especially UN Resolution 194, and the Arab Peace Initiative, guaranteeing their right of return and compensation.” There was no direct criticism of the US move.

Before Safadi’s comments, Yasin Abu Awwad, director general of the Department of Palestinian Affairs at the Foreign Ministry, had said Jan. 9, “UNRWA will continue its operations and providing services to the Palestinian refugees until the Palestinian issue is resolved in line with UN Resolution 194.” His remarks were made in response to the Jan. 7 call of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for UNRWA to be shut down and its responsibilities transfered to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Jordan’s notable hesitation in dealing with the UNRWA issue stands in contrast to its strong reaction to Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem and relocate the US Embassy there. King Abdullah II had led an intensive diplomatic campaign to rally Arab, Muslim and international support for the Palestinians and to reject the unilateral move by the United States. Now that Amman has toned down its rhetoric, it has become clear that the government has been reviewing its position in an attempt to keep its channels of communication open with the Trump administration.

The change in tone and direction was evident in Abdullah’s Jan. 10 statements — published by local news websites but not the official news agency, the royal court or the daily press — to retired members of the army.

“The Palestinian cause is the responsibility of the international community and not only Jordan and Palestine,” the king was quoted as saying. “Jordanian interests come above all considerations.” Abdullah also said, “There are variations in priorities and strategies of the agendas of Arab countries,” and described the current situation, in the aftermath of Trump’s decision, as “regrettable.”

There is no doubt that Jordan was hoping for a stronger Arab front to confront the fallout from Trump’s move against UNRWA. Safadi and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir underscored the “brotherly ties” between their countries in a Jan. 6 meeting in Amman apparently held to dispel news and rumors that differences in views exist between Jordan and Saudi Arabia over Trump’s much-touted Middle East peace plan.

That does not, however, mean that Jordan is unconcerned about the repercussions of weakening or defunding UNRWA. Amman is abuzz with conspiracy theories about Trump’s “ultimate deal” or “deal of the century,” whose ultimate goal, many believe, is to liquidate the Palestinian cause. There is a strong belief here that Trump and his Middle East team are following an Israeli far-right playbook on dismantling the main elements of the Palestinian cause. It starts with Jerusalem, followed by the refugee issue and ends with linking Palestinian population centers on the West Bank to Jordan.

In Jordan's eye, defunding UNRWA and incorporating Palestinian refugees into the mandate of the UNHCR can only lead to permanent settlement in host countries, a contentious and divisive issue among Jordanians. On Jan. 13, political analyst Oraib al-Rantawi wrote in Ad-Dustour, “Cutting US funding to UNRWA can only mean one thing: removing the international symbol of the Palestinian cause and suffering and paving the way for settlement [in host countries].”

The settlement angle is looking increasingly like a strong possibility in the view of local observers. An informed foreign source who requested anonymity told Al-Monitor that a draft of the Trump peace plan is in the Saudis' hands, and last week a senior Palestinian official was briefed on it in Riyadh. On the refugee issue, it calls for a “just solution,” without reference to international resolutions or the right of return or compensation, according to the source.

For Jordan — already complaining that international donors are not meeting their financial obligations to cover the cost of hosting Syrian refugees — the defunding of UNRWA, which runs 171 schools, with more than 120,000 students, would add a huge burden to the kingdom’s cash-strapped treasury. The bigger challenge would be handling the settlement issue, especially with refugees lacking Jordanian nationality.

For now, Jordan appears to have opted for quiet diplomatic engagement with the United States rather than confrontation, which could prove costly and futile. This is the approach the king plans to take when Vice President Mike Pence visits Amman on Jan. 20.

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