Israel pays price for refusing peace talks

On the backdrop of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to launch negotiations with the Palestinians, it is no wonder that Jordan decided not to renew Israel’s lease on lands near the border.

al-monitor Jordan's King Abdullah (L) walks with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before their meeting at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jan. 16, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Jordanian Royal Palace/Yousef Allan.

Oct 24, 2018

The day after Israel signed the Oslo Accord with the Palestinians, the Jordanians rushed to sign in Washington the Israeli-Jordanian Common Agenda on Sept. 14, 1993. The Oslo process had caught the Jordanians by surprise: They were taken aback and wanted to guarantee their place in the new arrangements that were emerging in the region.

The common agenda became the starting point for peace negotiations between the two states; these negotiations ended a few months later in King Hussein’s palace. Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Jordanian king held their discussions in the palace for many long hours into the night. The two heads of state came to arrangements regarding all the points that had remained, until then, in dispute. The peace treaty was signed on Oct. 26, 1994.

As a result of the common agenda, several representatives of localities in the Negev’s Arava region along Israel’s eastern border asked to meet with me; I was then deputy minister of foreign affairs. They explained that they had important information regarding a future peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. When I received them, I was surprised to hear their story and their request.

They told me that during the years after the signing of the Armistice Agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1949, Israeli farmers in villages and kibbutzim had moved the border signs between the two states. They had been cultivating land tracts and fields beyond the armistice line, and the Jordanians had not stopped them. The farmers said that if the peace agreement perpetuated the armistice line, they would lose their main source of income. They demanded that we make sure that the new border include the sections that they, the Israelis, had cultivated.

I was taken aback by the story, and also by the demand. I told them that I could understand a situation of differences of opinion regarding a border line, when each side argues that a specific section belongs to it; in that case the problem would be solved by dividing the section under disagreement or by international arbitration. But here there was no argument at all: The farmers admitted that Israelis had taken what did not belong to them, and now they were asking that Israel not sign the peace agreement with Jordan until Jordan gave ex post facto consent to the deception!

I told them that perhaps the problem could be solved through territorial exchange. I transferred their message to the prime minister, who was personally in charge of the Jordanian issue, and tracts of land were, indeed, exchanged. I assume that Yitzhak Rabin received similar, additional demands from farmers in the region; clearly this was taken into account during the negotiations.

And so it was: 10.4 square miles of Jordanian sovereign land were annexed to Israel in exchange for Israeli sovereign territory of the same size. In addition, 7.7 square miles of cultivated land from the Tzofar region in the Arava Regional Council would be leased to Israel for 25 years with the option of extension. A smaller area of 3.2 square miles in the Naharayim region (in Israel’s north) would also be leased under the same conditions; this tract had also been cultivated by the farmers of two kibbutzim in the area.

According to the peace agreement, should one side want to cancel the leasing arrangement, it would have to announce as such a year before the end of the leasing period, so that the sides could consult with one another regarding the fate of these plots.

This arrangement was of great importance, not only with regard to Israel’s relations with Jordan but also regarding the agreement’s possible influence on future deals. For example, a land-exchange option based on the 1967 borders became a realistic option in a possible agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The leasing principle could also serve as a precedent for a possible arrangement with Syria regarding the Golan Heights or part of it.

Ultimately, though, the leasing agreement served as a weapon in the hands of the Jordanian opposition against the king. As the final date neared for Jordan to make an announcement (in the case that it did not intend to extend the lease), demonstrations filled Jordanian streets and people called on the parliament not to gives “presents” to Israel. King Abdullah evidently felt that he had better accede to the angry voices and crowds. Thus, he announced the revocation of the leasing arrangement Oct. 21.

The State of Israel was taken by surprise and angered, while the Israeli farmers are arguing that such a change will rob them of their livelihoods. Yet it is hard to understand the sudden shock: It is a very clear clause in the addendum to the agreement, and under the circumstances one would have expected the farmers to search for alternative livelihoods. The king did not violate any agreement when he chose to execute the clause allowing him to stop leasing Jordanian land after a quarter of a century. Evidently, those who did not even consider entering into negotiations in time (namely the Israeli government), will now have to try to wrangle a deal in which Israeli farmers would till the same land, but under Jordan sovereignty.

It is a well-known fact that when a contract for renting an apartment is due to expire after a few years, the owner is allowed to ask for higher rent for the future, or any other demand connected to the apartment itself. But it is hard to imagine that raising the price in the Jordanian case would solve the problem. Since Abdullah has already heeded the voice of the crowds, he would have to come up with a very good reason for changing his mind. And this reason just may be connected to the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process.

In one of the conversations I held with the king, he told me the following: “You Israelis, you don’t understand that when a single Palestinian is killed by Israeli hands, a mourning tent pops up to the east of the Jordan river.” If Israel engages this year in diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians for a solution based on the 1967 borders, then the king of Jordan could change his mind on the lease. Such negotiations would offer him a valid argument for prolonging it. But at this point in time, it is hard to believe that such an option still exists — especially since we are talking about an election year in Israel.

Now comes the next question: how important is it to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to help those Israeli farmers who will suffer from termination of the Jordanian lease? Certainly, he will try to persuade the king to extend the lease, this time for a shorter time period, and perhaps for a higher price. But that may not be enough. Netanyahu will not want to initiate a confrontation with Jordan, the country that distanced the security border for Israel tremendously.

For the Jordanian lease to be renewed next year, Israel would need a new government. If elections are held early, or Netanyahu resigns due to criminal charges against him; and if a new government is formed, and this new government really and sincerely pursues talks with President Mahmoud Abbas, then the Jordanians could change their mind on the lease. And then the Tzofar and Naharayim farmers would be able to continue cultivating the fields. Otherwise, they will have to start looking for other work. 

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