Abdel Bari Atwan is well-known to Arab audiences. The editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi is known for his fiery patriotic and anti-Western interviews on major satellite televisions. A major supporter of the Arab revolutions, Atwan lived up to his no-nonsense reputation when he appeared this week on Jordan’s independent station Roya TV. However, something strange happened when the discussion came to the issue of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation.
The Gaza-born Palestinian, now a UK citizen, was mellow and supportive of the idea on condition that it takes place after Palestinian independence, and not on the basis of the U.N. declaration of Palestinian statehood.
Atwan’s commentary, until recently a taboo subject, is being now heard in Jordanian and Palestinian circles. The confederation issue had been discussed at length in the 1980s by senior PLO and Jordanian officials, but came to an abrupt stop when King Hussein stated: “I don’t want to hear the term confederation ever mentioned again.”
It is unclear why the King made such a strong statement, but some argue that it was made because some had questioned Jordan’s genuine support for Palestinian independence.
Since those days much has happened, including a change in the top Palestinian and Jordanian leaderships.
The overwhelming vote at the U.N. to recognize Palestine based on the 1967 borders as a non-member observer state relieves Jordan of the continuous Israeli aspiration to see Jordan replace the PLO in representing Palestinians. Ironically, Israel has at different times recognized the Jordanian role in Palestine, including Jerusalem, as at the time of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, yet at other times denied it any role.
Last summer, a commission led by Israeli Judge Edmund Levy investigated the legality (from an Israeli point of view) of settlements; it ruled that the West Bank is not occupied territories since Jordan’s 1950 annexation of Palestinian lands west of the Jordan River was not legitimate because only two countries, Britain and Pakistan, recognized that decision.
The vote of 138 countries to recognize the PLO’s bid for a Palestinian state has put to rest such legal gibberish and seems to have paved the way to reopening a topic closed for over three decades.
Naturally, the suggestion of a confederation continues to be theoretical until there is a resolution to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas in 1967, in contravention to international law. Some argue that by discussing the idea of future confederation with Jordan, some Israelis who are worried about what would happen when the Israeli army withdraws could be less opposed. Others worry that the idea of confederation might evolve into that of federation, and thus slowly erode the concept of Palestinian independence.
When the issue of confederation was discussed decades ago, PLO leader Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyyad) was quoted as saying that Palestinians want five minutes of independence and would then immediately enter into a confederation with Jordan.
Jordan’s Islamists are expected to be supportive of the confederation idea. When King Hussein severed administrative ties with the West Bank, in 1987, the Islamists were against such a decision and have remained opposed to it. At the same time, Jordan’s Constitution has not been amended in terms of the territory of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, leaving also a constitutional loop hole if and when the issue will be discussed.
While the issue of confederation is being approached with sensitivity, it is known that a number of Palestinian and Jordanian nationalists are totally opposed to the concept. Some worry that in Jordan, the issue of a unique identity, which has been unclear for years, will be further confused if the idea of confederation and/or federation becomes mainstream.
It is unlikely that East Bankers, already concerned that their role and importance is being eroded, will easily accept the suggestion that the Kingdom agree to an agreement with the PLO regarding the country’s long-term status.
Although a number of officials in Palestine and Jordan have begun talking of confederation, it is unlikely that the issue will gain much ground until after the January 23 parliamentary elections in the Kingdom.
(The writer is a Palestinian journalist, former professor at Princeton. The article was first published in The Jordan Times on Dec. 20, 2012. Twitter: @daoudkuttab)