Abbas’ Trial Balloon

Why the revived talk of a proposed Palestinian-Jordanian confederation? 

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is skilled at launching ‘trial balloons’. He uses them to take the pulse of the Palestinian public or to pave the way for some political project he is discussing with the Israeli occupation state or some neighbouring countries under US auspices. He is not in the habit of talking for its own sake, and there are many precedents in this regard — most memorably the way he used one of his aides to pave the way for the Oslo Accords before signing them on the White House lawn in September 1993.

This week, Abbas let it be known he received an offer from US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner and his side-kick Jason Greenblatt, based on the formation of a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation. Abbas said he insisted that he would only agree to that if Israel joined too, i.e. that it should be a tripartite Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli confederation.

This surprise revelation came during a meeting Abbas held with a delegation from the all but defunct Israeli Peace Now movement, whose details were intentionally leaked to the Israeli daily Haaretz by one of its members, Hagit Ofran –perhaps at the direct or indirect suggestion of Abbas himself.

The Palestinian president’s spokespeople have confirmed that the meeting took place but have avoided talking about the offer of a confederation or ruling it out. They have merely reiterated the tired old line that a two-state solution must be the precursor to a special relationship with Jordan, and that a confederation would be something for the two peoples to decide. But this does not dispel our suspicions that some dish is being cooked up – or at least that some of its ingredients are being prepared – and Abbas wanted that known amid on-going talk of a US-sponsored ‘deal of the century’, and given his refusal to implement Palestinian resolutions to withdraw recognition of Israel and end security coordination with it.

This leak could allude to a major component of the ‘deal of the century’ that is now being implemented in stages. The first stage was moving the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem, recognising it as Israel’s eternal capital and taking off the negotiating table. The second stage is the attempt to scrap the Palestinian right of return and the refugees’ cause by trying to destroy UNRWA, cutting off  financial aid to the agency and preventing others such as the Arab Gulf states from compensating for the shortfall. The third stage is the five or more year truce agreement with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and all the ‘humanitarian solutions’ that will supposedly emanate from it.

It is clear that the ‘deal of the century’ aims prizing the Gaza Strip away from the West Bank once and for all, creating a separate Gaza ‘emirate’ and establishing  ‘economic peace’ with it. What remains of the West Bank could then be handed over to Jordan because Israel has already taken over the land and water that it wants, and wishes to offload the burden of the three-and-a-half-million inhabitants onto Jordan with promises of a few billion dollars in financial aid.

There are three reasons why Abbas may have dropped this bombshell about confederation:

– First, he realises that the confederation idea is up for discussion as part of the deal of the century, and sought to obstruct it by adding Israel to it. He knows full well that Israel would never join an entity in which Jews would be a minority.

– Secondly, he may have been actually paving the way for a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation without adhering to the condition that a Palestinian state must be established first, the position the Palestinian leadership has held since 1984. This would be unsurprising coming from Abbas, who has already down-scaled the right of return in future negotiations, restricting it to a few thousand surviving first-generation refugees – which is consistent with the new American definition of who is a refugee.

– Third, Abbas could be implicitly consenting to the West Bank’s separation from the Gaza Strip and focusing on the former. He was completely sidelined by the Egyptian authorities in the Gaza truce talks, and has severely eroded the PA and PLO leadership’s representative status among the Palestinian people. Accordingly, he may be seeking a new role that brings him back in to the limelight.

It is true that Jordanian government spokeswoman Jumana Ghunaimat has officially stressed that linking the West Bank to Jordan is out of the question and not open to discussion. But it is also true that Jordan’s position remains ambiguous, not only on this issue, but on other no less important matters as well.

For example. the US-Israeli conspiracy to end UNRWA by drying up its financial resources and reducing its services poses an existential threat to Jordan itself. It is a step towards establishing an ‘alternative homeland’ for the Palestinians in Jordan, with a few indirect patch-ups and ‘improvements.’ And it shatters all the Jordan authorities’ hopes of resolving their financial crises – $40 billion of public debt that costs $2.2 billion to service annually – using compensation due to Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan.

We cannot believe that the Jordanian authorities had no prior knowledge of the US-Israeli scheme to do away with UNRWA and by extension the refugees’ right of return. If they did know, as seems likely, why did they not act forcefully to foil it? If they had good reasons to wait, or postpone any actions until after the US withdrew its support for UNRWA, they should declare them, and come clean about them to the Jordanian and Palestinian peoples.

There is much we could say in this regard, but it is based on analysis rather than hard information, so we will not anticipate events or issue premature judgments. It is wiser to wait for the the dust to settle and the main features to become apparent of the ‘dish’ that is being prepared in occupied Jerusalem with the blessing of the US administration, and which may start being served up in a matter of a few months.

It must be reiterated: Abbas’ revelations are no coincidence. The man does not talk off the top of his head, especially at a time when he is striving to overcome the state of marginalization he is currently experiencing on the Palestinian and regional levels. There have been reports that his claim to have broken off contact with the US administration is not entirely accurate and that his secret contacts with the Israelis have not ceased – including a monthly meeting with the head of the Shin Bet.

We worry for Palestine and its cause as well as for Jordan and its security and stability. The official silence currently prevailing in Jordanian official circles over a variety of region and domestic is cause for concern, and we can only hope it is misplaced.