King Abdullah Stakes His Place in Middle East Peace Negotiations

By Danielle Bella Ellison:

Jordan, like many nations in the Arab world, has experienced intense political turmoil in the past year. The “Arab street” is considered by many to have been the major instigator of revolutionary fervor in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, as well as of many protests in other Arab countries, including Jordan. The “Arab street” is certainly not a strong supporter of Israel—or of a two-state solution. At best, the average Arab man considers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an irrelevant distraction to his own economic and political woes. At worst, he believes Israel has no right to exist. So why is Jordan currently the primary mediator in attempts to renew talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials? And furthermore, does Jordan’s unique relationship with both the Israelis and the Palestinians make its initiative more or less likely to succeed?

King Abdullah of Jordan announced a few weeks ago his decision to work closely with members of the Quartet on the Middle East (the US, Russia, the EU, and the UN) to restart negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, hopefully moving the region towards a lasting peace. But why is he taking on this challenge when it seems his people most likely either aren’t concerned with an Israeli-Palestinian deal, or may even be opposed to a two-state solution that gives credibility to Israel? Over the past year, the king has been the subject of a great deal of internal protest. Although the situation has calmed since mid-2011, it would be illogical for him to make a move that would inspire even more unrest. On the one hand, this diplomatic initiative could be a good distraction from the economic and political turmoil in Jordan. But on the other hand, many Jordanians might see it as a wasteful diversion from the reforms the king should be focusing on.

King Abdullah of Jordan must walk a careful line of diplomacy in order to assuage the concerns of his people while assisting with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. (Flickr Creative Commons/World Economic Forum)

A more likely explanation for Abdullah’s move is that he is aiming to increase Jordan’s importance and standing in international diplomatic affairs, a development that would make his people more supportive of him and less likely to protest for political change. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long stood as one of the most intractable dilemmas in the region. Anyone who would make a significant contribution to its solution, as Jordan might, can expect to receive immense global recognition. Furthermore, by working towards peace with leaders from the US, Russia, and the EU, King Abdullah likely hopes to develop stronger relationships with these nations, perhaps garnering economic benefits. Increased Western economic support is another meaningful reward that Abdullah might be seeking for Jordan in order to solidify his own shaky position of power.

There is a good chance that the Jordanian attempt will inspire progress. Jordan is currently in a unique and powerful position, holding significant leverage with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. With the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring, Jordan remains both peoples’ key relatively stable neighbor. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognizes and laments, with the uncertainty of the new Egyptian government’s policy towards the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Jordan is currently the only neighbor with which Israel has a firm peace treaty. With this in mind, the Israelis are more likely to listen to the Jordanian king than to any other Arab leader—or perhaps even many Western leaders.

Because of Jordan’s unusual sway over Israel, Palestinian leaders are eager to work with the Jordanians as well. And as internal protest and dissent between the Fatah leaders in the West Bank and the Hamas leaders in Gaza continues to brew, the Palestinians are looking for Arab political partners who enjoy relative stability in their own countries.

But if the Jordanian initiative fails, it spells more distress for the Israelis than for the Palestinians. Jordan is an Arab nation, and King Abdullah is still largely beholden to the “Arab street.” If negotiations remain stalled, the Jordanian king is certainly more likely to blame Netanyahu than to blame Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel remains faced with a difficult choice: it must honor Jordan’s initiative towards peace, but it risks increased blame from its most important Arab ally if it fails.

Danielle Bella Ellison ’15 is in Davenport College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger, focusing on the politics of Israel and the Middle East. Contact her at