Will the Israel-Hamas conflict destabilize Jordan?

On October 7, a new crisis erupted in the Middle East with the Hamas attacks on Israel. This crisis has serious implications for the states in the region, especially those Arab countries neighboring Israel. With about half of its population of Palestinian origin, Jordan stands to be affected the most by the conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian issue, which has historically affected Jordan's domestic politics and foreign policy, continues to be one of the Kingdom's most serious security challenges. Therefore, the course of the Israel-Hamas war and Jordan’s response to it will be decisive for Jordan's long-term stability. At first glance, the crisis poses a significant threat to Jordan's national security and political stability. Israel's forced displacement of Palestinians and protests in Jordan are among the most serious challenges. There is also the possibility that the prolongation or expansion of the conflict could threaten Jordan's economic stability by exacerbating the country's already deep economic problems.

Jordan's Red Lines
Jordan continues to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Jordanian officials, a just and lasting peace in the region could only be achieved through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. In his statements immediately after the October 7 attacks, Jordan's King Abdullah II emphasized the importance of a two-state solution and underlined the need for an end to the Israeli occupation in order to achieve lasting peace. However, Israel's ground offensive against Hamas has made the re-occupation of Gaza a real possibility, with the two-state solution becoming all the less viable. Israeli authorities even started to float the idea of “temporary” resettlement of Palestinian civilians living in Gaza on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. However, King Abdullah has categorically opposed the transfer of Palestinian refugees to Egypt or Jordan, strongly emphasizing that this is a “red line” for Jordan. Jordan believes that the resettlement of Palestinians in Sinai could set a precedent for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan. Jordan sees such a population transfer as an “existential threat” to its national security and political stability. Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi went a step further than King Abdullah by declaring that the transfer of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan would be seen as an “act of war” and making clear Jordan’s firm stance on this issue.

Following the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Jordan had negative political, social, and economic consequences for the country and led to a permanent change in its demographic structure. Worried that Israel's attacks on Palestine would pave the way for a similar scenario, the Jordanian government wanted to prevent Israel from creating a de facto reality on the ground by expelling Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, clearly stating that such a move constituted a “red line” and that any attempts to this end would be considered an “act of war”. In addition, Jordanian authorities argued that the Palestinian issue should be resolved on Palestinian territories and underlined that Jordan is not al-Watan al-Badil, that is, an “alternative homeland” for the Palestinians. Although population transfer might seem like a somewhat remote probability in the current context, the sharp statements made by senior Jordanian officials, including King Abdullah, reveal that this issue is perceived as a major threat to Jordan’s national security and stability. In fact, the aggressive and expansionist policies implemented in the West Bank by the new Netanyahu government, the most right-wing in Israel's history, show that Jordan's fears are well-founded. Jordanian policymakers are considering the possibility that Israel will take advantage of the political room for maneuver provided by the Hamas attacks to increase its pressure in the West Bank and change the long-held status quo in the region to Jordan's detriment. Repeated warnings made by King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Safadi show that the Jordanian leadership must be taking such a scenario quite seriously.

Anti-Israel protests may evolve into anti-regime protests
Another threat to Jordan’s stability is the anti-Israel protests. The Jordanian public reacted strongly against Israel's retaliatory attacks on the Gaza Strip that killed thousands of Palestinian civilians. Hundreds of people took to the Jordanian-Israeli frontier in protest of Israel’s violence, demanding that the government open the border to allow them to cross into the West Bank. Jordanians also demonstrated in front of the Israeli Embassy in Amman after the Israeli attack on the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza. The Jordanian public asked their government to close the Israeli embassy and take concrete steps against the Israeli violence in Gaza and the West Bank.

The anti-Israel demonstrations in Jordan have not yet reached a level that directly targets the monarchy or threatens the regime’s security. However, if Israel's attacks on Gaza continue and the government fails to protect the Palestinians in the face of the Israeli onslaught, the Kingdom’s ineffectiveness vis-à-vis Israel will become even more visible. If that happens, the frustration of the Jordanian people might turn against government officials and take on an anti-regime character. In this case, the Jordanian government might even consider closing the Israeli embassy for good and suspending relations with Israel in order to appease the Jordanian public. This is because the King’s slightest hesitation to take tangible steps against Israel risks a confrontation with a Jordanian public highly sensitive about the Palestinian cause.

The situation in the West Bank is slightly different from that in the East Bank. Anti-Israeli protestors clashed with Palestinian security forces during the demonstrations in Ramallah, Jenin, and Nablus. In these demonstrations, Palestinians not only protested the Israeli attacks but also the inability of the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas to protect Palestinian national rights. Continued Israeli aggression in Gaza and settler violence in the West Bank could significantly amplify animosity towards the 87-year-old Abbas and the corrupt Palestinian politicians around him. Under these circumstances, there’s a potential for the Palestinian Authority to lose its grip on the West Bank, causing unrest to spread across the river and posing a threat to Jordan's security.

The conflict threatens Jordan's economic stability
Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to deepen Jordan's economic problems. Regional and global developments over the last decade have made Jordan's economy increasingly fragile. Global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine War, alongside regional conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the Syrian War, are among the primary causes of the sharp economic downturn in Jordan. The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza would deal another blow to the Jordanian economy, which is highly vulnerable to regional and global shocks. It is also possible that Jordan might fall out with its Western allies over Gaza, with policy differences between the two sides deepening. If that happens, Jordan could be deprived of Western loans, investments, and grants, which it desperately needs for its economic stability. Reflecting on the demonstrations in Jordan during December 2022, prompted by increased living costs, unemployment, and high inflation, it becomes clearer how additional economic challenges stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could jeopardize Jordan's political stability and the security of its regime.

It is clear by now that the Israel-Hamas conflict has exposed Jordan to a number of political and economic challenges. However, Jordan does not have many policy options at its disposal to deal with these challenges. Having no political leverage over Israel or Hamas, Jordan lacks the capacity to influence the course of the conflict. Moreover, in his diplomatic encounters with many regional and international leaders, King Abdullah has not been able to convince the international community to rein in Israel in Gaza. Therefore, the Jordanian government is highly vulnerable to the security threats posed by the Israel-Hamas conflict. As a result, Israel's ground offensive in Gaza and its desire to change the status quo in the Palestinian territories could destabilize Jordan. An upheaval in Jordan, often referred to as “the bastion of stability” in the Middle East, could have devastating repercussions for the broader region, with a particular impact on the Levant and the Gulf subregions.

“This article was previously published on  October 25, 2023, on Anadolu Agency’s web site with the title “İsrail-Hamas çatışması Ürdün'de istikrarsızlığa yol açar mı?”