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Assessing normalization in Jordan

After 13 years of official peace, normalization between Jordan and Israel may certainly have evolved between the two governments. Normalization between the peoples of the two states, however, remains elusive. The peace treaty signed between Jordan and Israel on October 26, 1994, included several issues and annexes, one of which was the normalization of relations. Consequently, the two countries exchanged ambassadors, Israel returned approximately 339 square kilometers of territory near the Rift Valley to Jordan, economic and political cooperation agreements were signed and water sharing finally occurred after May 1997 when Israel agreed to start pumping 72,000 cubic meters of water per day from Lake Tiberias to Jordan, a little over half the target amount envisioned in an annex to the peace treaty. Creative ideas such as a shared airport between Aqaba and Eilat are still being discussed. The Red-to-Dead canal has only recently been sanctioned, awaiting only a feasibility study that will be conducted under the auspices of the World Bank.

After decades of conflict and distrust, the two governments viewed economic cooperation as a necessary condition for garnering support for the treaty by Jordanians and, to a lesser extent, Israelis. However, economic cooperation without comprehensive peace did not prove sufficient to create an environment of harmony between the two peoples. Nor has economic cooperation proved significant enough to conclude a people-to-people normalization process.

At the Casablanca MENA Conference of 1994, Israel seemed intent on entering the regional fold. In parallel, Arab countries demonstrated their willingness to accept coexistence with Israel. At the 1995 MENA Conference in Amman, emphasis was placed on regional cooperation with Israel and the integration of the Israeli economy in the region. However, at the MENA Conference in Cairo the following year a new message was sounded: Cooperation was a two-way street. From an Arab perspective, Israel, then ruled by the hawkish Netanyahu Cabinet, could not expect Arabs to cooperate and forgive all past acts while it continued to deny the humanity of the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples.

It is the Cairo message that has endured. Consequent acts by successive hard-liners in Israel have not endeared the normalization concept to Arabs. Jordanians, many of whom are of Palestinian origin, could find little cause to normalize, especially since many of their kin were on the receiving end of Israeli-induced hardships.

Meanwhile, however, the Qualifying Industrial Zones, created after the peace treaty to encourage economic cooperation, led to increasing trade between Jordan and Israel. Trade between the two countries rose from $20 million in 1996 to $247 million in 2006, with a trade deficit of $150 million in favor of Israel. The markets of the West Bank and Gaza are almost totally monopolized by Israel, with Jordanian trade to those areas being only about 3 percent of potential.

The impact of the QIZs remains vague in terms of their economic effect on the Jordanian economy. The majority of investors and workers in the QIZs are non-Jordanian and some investors complain that their Israeli partners charge too much for the required Israeli components. It is not surprising, therefore, that more and more producers in Jordan are shifting to the Jordan-US Free Trade Agreement as their vehicle of choice for exporting to the US. Moreover, news of Egypt's similar QIZ agreement with the US and Israel, which was signed in 2005, did not cause the expected panic in Jordan, possibly because Jordanians thought there was little to gain in the first place from the QIZs in Jordan. The announcement also meant to some that the Egyptian QIZs would de facto decrease the need for Jordanians to normalize, as a people, with Israel.

Could normalization have evolved differently in the more than a decade that has elapsed since signing the peace treaty? Reputations and credibility are established over years, if not decades, of actions and reactions. Changing reputations requires a reversal of the old paradigm in a consistent manner and over almost as many years. Neither happened. The general and lingering feeling in Jordan is that the peace issue has not been fully resolved and that the peace dividend was minimal. Consequently, comprehensive normalization is probably as far away as comprehensive peace.

Yusuf Mansur is the managing partner of the Envision Consulting Group (EnConsult) and former CEO of the Jordan Agency for Enterprise and Investment Development. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

Marseille,12 10 2007
The Daily Star
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