Jordan’s limited shelf life: Israel must prepare – analysis

One factor, regularly overlooked—or deliberately disregarded—in the discourse on Israel’s security, with far-reaching implications for its national security, is the crucial importance of the possibility of a regime change Jordan.

By Martin Sherman, Institute for Strategic Studies

Israel must prepare for a daunting situation in which, along its eastern frontier, it could face a huge expanse of hostile territory, controlled by radical Islamist warlords, stretching from the fringes of Greater Tel Aviv to the border of Iraq — and beyond.

For Israel, the recent revelations regarding the financial machinations of the Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah, exposed by the release of the Pandora Papers, are likely to have far-reaching ramifications, which extend well beyond the hullabaloo of the public scandal and speculative media prattle.

Indeed, the exposé, involving a huge leak of confidential files of numerous past and present politicians, plutocrats, and other high-profile personalities (including Abdullah), from miscellaneous tax havens, harbor the potential for serious strategic impact, particularly on considerations regarding the long-term configuration of Israel’s eastern front.

It has been longstanding Israeli policy to regard Jordan, under the relatively moderate, pro-Western monarch, as a strategic asset, comprising a buffer state between its long eastern frontier and more the inimical regimes to the east, such as Iraq and Iran. It is not difficult to understand the short-term rationale of this approach. After all, for the last half-century, Israel’s eastern frontier has, by and large, been peaceful under the Hashemite dynasty.

However, as I have cautioned repeatedly (see for example here; here, and here),  prudence dictates that for Israel, its underlying policy assumption ought to be that the Hashemite regime has a limited “shelf-life.” Accordingly, it would be highly perilous to base any long-term strategic planning on the ruling dynasty’s durability.

Indeed, in 2019, former Mossad director Efraim Halevy counseled soberly that Israel’s “security establishment should be devising plans to deal with possible future alternatives in the Hashemite Kingdom…”

The exposé on the king’s opulent real estate holdings, reportedly in excess of $100 million and spread across the globe—from the scenic clifftops of the Malibu coastline to the subdued elegance of spacious residences in some of London’s most sought-after area codes, has, if anything, made this caveat even more pertinent and pressing. Indeed, the fact that the properties were surreptitiously acquired through a web of shadowy off-shore companies only served to make the “optics” even more unbecoming.

Dire domestic difficulties

One Mid-East analyst told the BBC that the Pandora Papers’ revelations could have a detrimental impact on public perception in Jordan. Commenting on the “optics,” she contrasted the lavish wealth of the rulers with the daily travails of the man-in-the-street in Jordan:

“It’s just very, very difficult for the average Jordanian to achieve a basic level of home and family, and a good job. And so to have it…thrown in Jordanians’ faces that he’s just been funnelling money abroad all this time? That, that would look really bad.”

After all, with scant natural resources, Jordan is a country beset by a myriad of domestic problems—crumbling infrastructure, a hopelessly overloaded welfare system, inundated by refugees fleeing war-torn neighbors, widespread civil discontent and frequent protests, all exacerbated by the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a recent CNN report, poverty and unemployment are at record levels and have driven Jordanians to the streets.

Mired in economic woes and amid a growing outcry against alleged government corruption and mismanagement, anger has been building among Jordan’s youth — who account for most of the population–increasing the likelihood of further instability and disaffection with the leadership.

Under the caustic headline, “While His Country Struggles, Jordan’s King Abdullah Secretly Splurges,” the Washington Post writes: “While criticism of Abdullah is rare in Jordan’s repressive political climate, U.S. officials and experts on Middle East politics said he is widely seen as tolerant of, if not complicit in, corruption that has become an increasing source of resentment amid the nation’s economic downturn.”

International aid: An impending impediment

According to a Mideast source cited by ABC News, given the local media blackout on the revelations, coupled with the lack of internet availability among Jordan’s poorest, any immediate threat to Abdullah is unlikely to emerge in the short term. Nevertheless, he warned that, as word of the scandal spread, it could be “very damaging” domestically.

However, possibly even more troubling, it could provoke the ire of donor nations. According to Jordan’s official Petra News Agency, the country received some $5 billion in foreign aid last year. More than a quarter of that money came from the US alone. “It is bound to affect the ability of Jordan to solicit aid easily,” the ABC News source warned.

As Will Fitzgibbon, senior writer for the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, (ICIJ) points out: “The kingdom depends on foreign aid to support its own people and to house and care for millions of refugees. Last year alone, the U.S. gave Jordan over $1.5 billion in aid and military funding, while the European Union agreed to provide the kingdom with more than $218 million to soften the blow of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In an interview with ICIJ, Mideast expert Annelle Sheline warned that an overly ostentatious display of wealth “wouldn’t only antagonize his people, it would piss off [sic] Western donors who have given him money.”

In a similarly stern tone, Dave Harden, a former senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, now Congressional candidate for Maryland, asserted: “Nobody’s going to turn a blind eye to this,” warning that even the mere appearance of misspending could lead to calls for more stringent oversight for future American assistance to Jordan.

Topographical barriers and security

This returns the discussion to the impact all this generates for Israel, its strategic planning and its perception of risk management.

Accordingly, as a Times of Israel analysis, headlined “Pandora Papers fuel growing domestic discontent with Jordan’s Abdullah”, points out: “A weakened regime in Amman could create a power vacuum that would allow terrorist groups to establish a foothold all along Jordan’s border with Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian refugees in Jordan could inspire dangerous unrest in the West Bank… Iran would also likely seek to take advantage of the chaos to open a new front against Israel.”

One factor regularly overlooked—or deliberately disregarded—in the discourse on Israeli security, is the crucial importance of the possibility, indeed probability, of a regime change in Jordan–and the attendant significance this may harbor for the territory usually earmarked for a future Palestinian state.

This territory —the highlands of Judea and Samaria (aka the “West Bank”),  towers above Israel’s heavily populated coastal plain, controls the approaches to Greater Tel Aviv, dominates crucial infrastructure installations and systems — including Israel’s only international airport, Ben-Gurion — sits atop vital water resources, and abuts the Trans-Israel Highway, the major thoroughfare connecting the north of the country with the south.

These highlands are the sole topographical barrier between Jordan and Israel’s crowded coastal megalopolis. Any forces — regular or renegade — deployed on them will have complete topographical command and control over all of central Israel, with the ability to disrupt daily life at will — making it potentially impossible to maintain any semblance of social and commercial routine.

Accordingly, as any prospective Palestinian state would be sandwiched between pre-1967 Israel in the west, and Jordan in the east, it matters greatly whether Jordan is ruled by a government that strives to rein in forces hostile to Israel or one that is willing to give them free rein.

If the monarchy falls—or even is sufficiently weakened, so as to become a mere puppet regime for more powerful radical forces, Israel could find itself in a dire situation.

For along its eastern border, there may no longer be a conservative, relatively moderate pro-Western monarchy but in all likelihood, an extreme Muslim regime with an incandescent hostility toward the Jewish state. This will make control of the highlands of Judea and Samaria even more crucial for Israel’s security.

This underscores a conclusion many in Israel would rather not draw.

It is, as pointed out previously, that the crucial premise, for those charged with charting the nation’s longterm strategic course, must be that the Hashemite monarchy has a limited “shelf life.” Accordingly, it would be wildly imprudent to base any long-term strategic planning on the presumption of its long-term durability.

Israeli strategic planners must, therefore, prepare blueprints for the country to contend with a daunting situation in which — along its longest frontier and narrowest dimension —it may well be confronted with a huge expanse of hostile territory, controlled by radical Islamist warlords, stretching from the fringes of Greater Tel Aviv to the border of Iraq — and perhaps beyond.

As Israel has little to no ability to determine who will — and who will not — rule Jordan, the only way it can avoid this potential nightmare scenario is to ensure it continues to control of these highlands itself — which ipso facto precludes the establishment of a future Palestinian state on them.

The publication of the Pandora Papers is just one more demonstration of what, for many, is a politically unpalatable truth.

Martin Sherman is the founder & executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.