Monday, March 27, 2017

Our neighbors to the East


Image from article, with caption: Defense Ministry releases first images of new Jordan border security fence.(Photo by: DEFENSE MINISTRY)

We have had over 20 years to build strong relations with our neighbors but instead have allowed fear and security concerns to overwhelm public diplomacy.

One of the most exciting days of my life was October 26, 1994, when I joined hundreds of Israelis and Jordanians in the no-man’s land between the two borders in the Arava desert to witness the signing of the Jordan Israel Peace Treaty by prime minister Yitzchak Rabin and prime minister Abdelsalam al-Majali in the presence of president Weizmann, king Hussein and president Clinton.

Even more exciting was the day, early in 1995, when I, together with other members of my kibbutz, crossed into Jordan for the first time to visit Petra.

As executive director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies I have had numerous opportunities since then to cross over to Jordan for meetings, conferences and interviews with Jordanian candidates interested in studying at the institute.

For over 20 years, Israel has had an official peace with Jordan that was preceded by many years of unofficial peace and security coordination.

The relationship, though marred by the horrific attack on Israeli schoolgirls at Naharayim by a Jordanian soldier, began with a lot of promise.

Israelis believed that Jordan was the doorway to the rest of the Middle East and Jordanians believed that relations to Israel were their doorway to economic prosperity.

The great promise of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan has for the most part been unfulfilled. Few Israelis feel safe or comfortable enough to visit Jordan, though crossing the border itself remains rather simple.

With a passport and NIS 105, any Israeli can decide, on the spur of the moment, to cross into Jordan by either the northern or southern crossings.

Not so for a Jordanian. A Jordanian who wishes to visit Israel, such as a research colleague, must apply ahead of time to the Israeli Consulate in Amman for a visa. The first step is a personal interview, scheduled in advance. On the day of the interview the applicant is told to come to the embassy at a set time.

Whatever time that is, the Jordanian will find him or herself standing outside the Israeli Consulate in Amman for many hours in a long line in the open, rain or shine.

Despite the peace treaty and the years of quiet coordination between Israel and Jordan, Jordanian society still sees Israel as the oppressor of the Palestinian people and the enemy of peace.

For many of our Jordanian colleagues, brave enough to go against their public’s opinion and cooperate with the Arava Institute on environmental research and programs, being publicly exposed, waiting in line in front of the consulate, is too big a risk.

If they do decide to take that risk, they will eventually be interviewed and their passport will be taken and held by consulate staff, while the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency), back in Israel, investigate the Jordanian, to make sure they do not have ties to terrorist organizations.

Due to a lack of human resources, this investigation takes a few weeks. All the while, the consulate holds on to the Jordanian’s passport.

If the Shin Bet clears the Jordanian for a visa, he or she will be called back to the consulate to personally retrieve the passport (no proxy is allowed to retrieve the passport). This is true even for residents of Irbid or Aqaba, who live hours away.

Many of our Jordanian colleagues travel to other parts of the Middle East to further their academic endeavors. When they ask the consulate not to put the visa in their passport so they will not have any problem entering Arab countries in the future, the consulate generally refuses.

At the border itself, Jordanians with valid visas issued by the consulate are often questioned at length by the security and Interior Ministry personnel and from time to time, refused entry.

At a recent meeting with an influential Jordanian businesswoman who has been to Israel to promote Israeli-Jordanian economic ties and who is very supportive of the cross-border work of the Arava Institute, I offered her an invitation to visit the institute in Israel.

She gave an enthusiastic response and said how much she would love to come, as long as she does not have to humiliate herself by the long process of applying for an Israeli visa.

Israel’s ambassador to Jordan, Einat Schlein, has warned Israeli government officials of the lack of interest Jordan shows for building economic and cultural relations with Israel while at the same time, the stability of Jordan’s economy and society, burdened by the absorption of more than a million Syrian refugees, is threatened.

The implication is that Israel should be doing more to help stabilize an important strategic partner in the region, but cannot because Jordanians continue to hold Israel at arm’s length.

We have had over 20 years to build strong relations with our neighbors but instead have allowed fear and security concerns to overwhelm public diplomacy.

If we continue to treat with suspicion those Jordanians who are open to engagement with Israel, is it any wonder that Jordanians remain suspicious of Israel? 

The author is executive director the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.

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