Building a Wall, Breaking a Relationship

By David Ignatius
Friday, January 30, 2004

Israel's plan to build a security fence inside the West Bank is beginning to bulldoze its friendly relationship with neighboring Jordan, which for decades has been one of its few reliable Arab partners.

With Israel under continuing assault from suicide bombers (such as the terrorist who attacked a Jerusalem bus yesterday, killing at least 11 people), Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pressed ahead with his plans for the barrier. Sharon argues that if the Palestinians won't control the suicide bombers, then Israel must take unilateral steps to protect itself -- including the fence.

But to Israel's consternation, Jordan has taken a leading role in opposing the barrier. The Jordanian foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, told his country's parliament on Jan. 21: "Construction of the wall would kill every opportunity for a viable Palestinian state." He said it would pose a "direct threat . . . to Jordanian national security because it might revive the transfer option [of Palestinians to Jordan] despite all Israeli assertions to the contrary."

Sharon has warned Jordan to keep quiet. He blamed the Hashemite kingdom for "leading" the campaign against the wall and said it had "much to lose in [a] worsening of its relations with Israel" if it continued with its anti-wall campaign. Jordan countered that it wouldn't be intimidated by Sharon's threats. As the bickering continued, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom canceled a visit to Amman planned for this week.

Muasher explained in a telephone interview that Jordan fears that the barrier, by undermining a viable Palestinian state, may revive the "Jordanian option." That argument, which was often made by right-wing Israeli politicians in the early 1980s, held that there was no need to create a Palestinian state because one already existed in Jordan, where a majority of the population is Palestinian.

"We are afraid that the day might come when Israeli leaders might argue 'Jordan is Palestine,' " Muasher said. "Why are we worried?" he went on. "The wall will effectively divide the West Bank into three parts. It will make life impossible for Palestinians: dividing them from their work, their schools, their lands. If that happens, what options do Palestinians have? They will leave, voluntarily or by force, for Jordan."

The Israel-Jordan dispute will sharpen soon, as Jordan takes its case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The Jordanians argue that the wall is illegal under international law because it is being built on territory that Israel occupied after the 1967 war. Israel is sure to have legal counterarguments, and the court's ruling won't be binding. But the legal skirmish is a sign of how this once-close relationship has begun to spin out of control.

The Jordanians could escalate the quarrel further by contending that the wall, by pushing Palestinians into Jordan, constitutes a breach of the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Muasher won't go that far, but he does affirm: "We have a peace treaty with Israel. It states that transfer of population is forbidden."

Ali Shukri, a retired Jordanian general who was one of King Hussein's closest advisers, cautions, "You don't wake up a sleeping giant against you." He's worried about the rising danger on both sides of Jordan, from Israelis and Palestinians to the west and a splintering Iraqi state to the east.

The flap over the wall is another sign that the status quo over the Palestinian problem cannot continue. Yesterday's suicide bombing, the first inside Israel since Dec. 25, will reignite Israeli anger that no mix of carrots or sticks has been able to stop the terror. In this environment, even Sharon seems unsure what to do -- other than build a wall to keep the bombers out.

Sharon's problem is that the Palestinian issue is leaching away Israel's security -- not militarily, but politically and strategically. Most Israelis want a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians that will allow Israel to become part of a thriving Mediterranean community. But as long as they continue to occupy the West Bank and dot it with settlements, the Israelis will have increasing trouble getting along with even their famously accommodating neighbors, the Jordanians.

And where is the Bush administration, as this potentially dangerous rift develops between two key strategic allies in the Middle East? Given its track record in dealing with the Palestinian issue, it's right where you would expect: sitting on its hands.

The administration's lack of forceful diplomacy on the Palestinian issue is unfair most of all to the Israelis. This problem isn't going away. The options for all sides are getting more unpalatable by the month, and the security fence plan is making things worse. The United States should press Israel to find more positive ways to achieve security.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company