Israel, Jordan Discreetly Foster Ties Amid Regional Chaos

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) -
Abdullah Sawalha, director of the Center for Israel Studies in Amman, Jordan. (AP Photo/Sam McNeil)
Abdullah Sawalha, director of the Center for Israel Studies in Amman, Jordan. (AP Photo/Sam McNeil)

A new Jordanian think tank that focuses on Israel is tucked away on the seventh floor of a glass-fronted Amman office building, without a sign announcing the presence of the Center for Israel Studies.

It’s the sort of discretion still customary in Jordan when it comes to anything concerning Israel. Broad segments of Jordanian society, where a majority have Palestinian roots, oppose “normalization” with Israel even 21 years after the two countries signed a peace deal.

Yet ties have grown stronger between the governments since the regional rise of Islamic fanaticism unleashed by the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Israel and Jordan have signed deals on natural gas and water desalination in recent months and Israeli officials say security cooperation is closer than ever.

“The relations have indeed become closer,” said Emmanuel Nahshon, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. “We see Jordan as a strategic partner, and have every intention of assisting and cooperating.”

Jordanian officials are more guarded.

“Jordan’s relations with Israel are subject to Jordan’s national interests,” government spokesman Mohammed Momani said. “The government does not force any Jordanian to engage in relations with Israel, but those who do are not breaking any laws.”

The Center for Israel Studies quietly began operations, setting up a website this year that publishes Arabic translations of Israeli articles about Israel and its views of the Arab world. The Amman center also produces its own studies about Israel.

Director Abdullah Sawalha said he is trying to provide more accurate information about Israel, arguing that Jordanians know little or have been misinformed.

“Israel exists in this region,” he said, adding that “many, many people (in Jordan) have an interest in this subject, but they don’t talk about it.”

Sawalha, a former employee in Jordan’s government spokesman’s office, said his center is independent, but declined to reveal sources of funding.

For the time being, it’s “not useful” to advertise the center’s location by putting a sign on the door, he said, referring to the prevailing mood in Jordan. The center might adopt a higher profile in coming months, said Sawalha, who has been interviewed by the Jordanian media.

He asked not to disclose the location of 10 Hebrew translators who are based in another Arab country, suggesting they could otherwise face problems.

Activists in Jordan’s anti-normalization movement view the study center’s claims of objectivity with suspicion. Thoraya El-Rayyes, a researcher at the Jordanian National Campaign to Block the Gas Deal with Israel, said she believes the think tank is meant to promote a more positive view of Israel in Jordan. She also questioned the center’s unwillingness to disclose sources of funding.

El-Rayyes said the anti-gas group represents a broad range of Jordan’s political opposition, from leftists to Islamists. Activists argue the gas deal could make Jordan dependent on Israel and that taxes flowing into Israeli’s treasury could finance the Jewish presence in Yehudah and Shomron and military action against Palestinians.

In a reflection of the public mood, the lower house of Jordan’s parliament overwhelmingly rejected the gas deal in December in a non-binding vote. The agreement, which could secure a large chunk of Jordan’s energy needs, is hung up over regulatory issues in Israel.