December 7, 2019

Jordan Got Land, We Got a Lesson

King Abdullah of Jordan. Photo via WikiCommons.

Last week, a small piece of land was transferred from Israel to Jordan. To be accurate, it was two pieces of land that Israel had control over under a lease that was signed twenty-five years ago, when the two countries signed a peace treaty. Israel agreed that the land is Jordan’s to have. Jordan agreed that Israel would keep it and farm it for the time being.

The assumption in Israel was that the temporary would become permanent. That is to say, that the countries would extend the lease for another quarter of a century. Seeing as Jordan doesn’t have any urgent need for these areas, which are anyways tended by Israeli farmers, why not keep this arrangement as a sign of goodwill between neighbors?

This is what Israel would have preferred, but Jordan decided to discontinue the arrangement—and make a show of taking back its land. On Sunday, King Abdullah of Jordan said in a speech that his country would put an end to the “annexation of the two areas,” and that Jordan will now impose its “full sovereignty” over “every inch” of the land.

Israeli farmers were understandably upset. They were worried about losing their land, even though the Jordanians are agreeing to let them continue farming there for the time being. But worries or not, Israel must accept this reality without complaint. It signed an agreement, albeit a foolish and shortsighted one, and reneging would an unwise move for an unworthy goal.

As Prime Minister Netanyahu said, referring to the anniversary of Israel’s peace agreement with Jordan: “The importance of stability in Jordan…the stability of peace agreements…[and] the non-takeover by Islamist elements, is in our clear interest.”

In other words, we understand that the King has certain political constraints. We choose not to have a crisis because of his decision. We have more important interests than these two pieces of land.

While Jordan may not gain much from getting the land back, Israel doesn’t lose much either. In fact, it could be argued that Israel has something to gain from the dissolution of the arrangement.

Sometimes, a lesson can only be learned from experience. And Israel just learned two important lessons from this experience. First – it learned that goodwill is a fickle thing. Second – it learned that 25 years isn’t as long as it sounds.

These two lessons will not get Israel back its once-leased land. This land goes back to Jordan. But these lessons will help Israel when ideas for other temporary arrangements are put on the table, as they almost certainly will be.

Temporary arrangements have been suggested as a solution for situations as diverse as the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Iranian nuclear program. For the Golan Heights and the West Bank, long-term leases were suggested. In the former proposal, the Golan Heights would be returned to Syria at the end of the lease period. In the latter, control of the Jordan Valley would be transferred to a Palestinian entity at the end of the lease. The temporary arrangement proposed for the Iranian nuclear program was of a different nature and consisted of a nuclear agreement that forces the Iranians to pause their nuclear program for fifteen years, after which they can do whatever they want to do.

Thanks to Jordan, we can see that such temporary arrangements are not solutions at all. At best, they are deferrals. At worse, they make things harder and more complex.

Imagine: Israel gets a lease on the Golan Heights for ninety-nine years, builds houses, develops infrastructure, settles communities, and invests resources in the area under the assumption that Syria will surely agree to extend the lease when the lease expires. Then Syria says no.

Imagine: Israel keeps a tight border in the Jordan Valley for twenty years. Then, it has to hand it to a Palestinian security force.

Imagine: Israel keeps its lips tight when Obama signs an agreement with Iran, and fifteen years later – sounds like a long time, but not to Iranian ears – Iran moves forward with its nuclear program, as agreed in advance.

Of course, there’s a great difference between these imaginary scenarios and the Jordan situation. Jordan is small change. Hence, the gain: It was disheartening to see Israel forced to abandon a piece of land. It was disheartening to listen to the farmers who now worry that they’ll no longer be able to work their fields. The bright side is that Israel learned a lesson by paying in small change—by getting a useful reminder that time flies.