Wikileaks: Jordan’s Palestinians

Posted: September 16, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Jordan, refugee attitudes, right of return, US

The recent release of the full Wikileaks collection of unredacted US diplomatic cables has generated political interest in Jordan, where some have claimed that the cables show evidence of a secret US plot to make Jordan into alternative Palestinian homeland. Particular attention has been directed to the notion of a “grand bargain” whereby Palestinians do not return to Palestine but instead are integrated into the Jordanian political system:

¶22. (C) A common theme that emerges from discussions with Palestinian-origin contacts and some government officials (although not necessarily East Bankers as a group) is a “grand bargain” whereby Palestinians give up their aspirations to return in exchange for integration into Jordan’s political system.  For East Bank politicians and regime supporters, this deal could help solve the assumed dual loyalty of Palestinians in Jordan.  For Palestinian-origin citizens, the compact would, ideally, close the book on their antagonistic relationship with the state and open up new opportunities for government employment and involvement in the political process.

¶23.  (C) “If we give up our right of return, they have to give us our political rights,” says Refai.  “In order for Jordan to become a real state, we have to become one people.”  Rantawi calls for a comprehensive peace process that would resolve issues of identity and rights for Palestinians in Jordan as part of the “package.”  This, he says, would require major reforms in Jordan, its transformation into a constitutional monarchy in which greater executive authority is devolved, and external pressure on the Government of Jordan to ensure that equal rights for Palestinians are enforced.

¶24.  (C) If a peace agreement fails to secure political rights for Palestinian-origin Jordanians as they define those rights, many of our contacts see the right of return as an insurance policy through which Palestinians would vote with their feet.  Refai asks: “If we aren’t getting our political rights, then how can we be convinced to give up our right of return?”  Palestinian-Jordanian Fuad Muammar, editor of Al-Siyasa Al-Arabiyya weekly, noted that in the past few years there has been a proliferation of “right of return committees” in Palestinian refugee camps.  This phenomenon, he said, reflected growing dissatisfaction with Jordanian government steps to improve their lot here and an increased focus on Palestine.

¶25.  (C) Comment:  Just because there is a logic to trading the right of return for political rights in Jordan does not mean that such a strategy is realistic, and it certainly will not be automatic.  There are larger, regime-level questions that would have to be answered before Palestinian-origin Jordanians could be truly accepted and integrated into Jordanian society and government. In the absence of a viable and functioning Palestinian state, those who are charged with protecting the current identity of the Jordanian state will be loath to consider measures that they firmly believe could end up bringing to fruition Jordan is Palestine – or “al-Watan al-Badeel.”  It is far from certain that East Bankers would be willing to give up the pride of place that they currently hold in a magnanimous gesture to their Palestinian-origin brethren.  Senior judge Al-Ghazo told us: “In my opinion, nothing will change in Jordan after the right of return.  East Bankers will keep their positions, and the remaining Palestinians will keep theirs.”  Likewise, none of our Palestinian contacts who saw a post-peace process environment as a necessary condition for their greater integration in Jordan offered a compelling case as to why it would be sufficient.

If you actually bother to read the cables, however, it is clear that there is no conspiracy at all, but rather some pretty solid and factual reporting by US Embassy staff on the private viewpoints of a range of Jordanian interlocutors of both East Bank and Palestinian origin. Indeed, the February 2008 cable quoted above (on “The Right of Return: What it Means in Jordan“) provides perhaps the best single short treatment I know of the topic in any language, drawing out the many tensions and nuances around the issue. It is controversial in Jordan partly because it highlights continuing discrimination against Palestinians, as well as the extent to which many Palestinian and Jordanian figures have come to view achievement of the “right of return” as improbable.

Uncomfortable truths no doubt—but truths nonetheless.

The US Embassy in Jordan also described (June 2004) Palestinian-Jordanian fears of an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and (August 2004) Palestinian-Jordanian criticism of King Abdullah. US diplomats provided some very solid reporting (May 2008) regarding Jordan’s measures to strip some Palestinian citizens of their citizenship, and a four part series of cables (June 20o8) describing the social and political dynamics of Palestinian refugee camps (here, here, here, and here)—among others.

Nothing in these cables should be particularly surprising to those who follow Jordanian politics. However, these are discussions that Jordanians usually have with friends, over coffee or dinner—and not in public forums where they are often considered far too sensitive for frank and substantive debate. I hope that the leak of the cables results in a more productive conversation within Jordan over the issue—and doesn’t harm any of those named in the cables who dared to share their honest views with foreign diplomats.

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