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The Implications of the Gaza-Israel War for U.S.-Jordanian Ties  

King of Jordan Abdullah II in Washington
US President Joe Biden meets with King of Jordan Abdullah II at the White House in Washington D.C., United States on May 6, 2024. (Photo by Royal Hashemite Court/Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The United States and its key regional ally, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, have increasingly divergent views on the war between Israel and Hamas. Amman sees the war as an existential threat to the kingdom, prompting King Abdullah II to visit the White House on May 6 – his second trip to Washington this year – to press U.S. President Joe Biden to deter a planned Israeli offensive in Rafah. 

Jordan’s unease over the Gaza war reflects regional concerns about the long-term U.S. commitment to the Middle East. It is in the U.S. interest to keep up relations with its regional partners, especially Jordan, which plays a crucial regional role in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group. Washington, therefore, should do more to demonstrate its ongoing commitment in the region, especially in the context of the war. 

U.S.-Jordanian Relations 

The United States and Jordan have historically maintained strong ties, with the U.S. being the kingdom’s largest single provider of bilateral aid, and Jordan hosting around 3,000 U.S. troops. However, relations became strained during former President Donald Trump’s term in office.  

The Trump administration’s 2018 relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite objections from Amman and other regional partners, was met with criticism and protests in Jordan and elsewhere. Trump’s 2020 peace plan for the Middle East lacked a clear identification of Jordan’s role as the custodian of the Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, a source of the monarchy’s legitimacy. 

Bilateral tensions eased after Biden assumed office. Although Biden did not reverse the embassy relocation, his administration has shown more respect for and understanding of Jordan’s regional status. Abdullah was the first Arab leader to visit Washington during Biden’s term, and during the visit Biden called Abdullah a “good, loyal, decent friend.” In September 2022, the countries signed their fourth Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Partnership, under which Washington would provide Jordan $1.45 billion in foreign assistance annually for seven years. Then in 2023, the Royal Jordanian Air Force signed a $4.21 billion deal with the U.S. to buy 12 Block 70 F-16 fighter jets. The sale would strengthen Amman’s ability to combat ISIS in any intervention in Syria. Some of these agreements nonetheless have come at the expense of U.S. popularity in Jordan, such as the 2021 Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was approved by a royal decree, thereby bypassing parliament. 

The Jordanian public, which already held strong anti-U.S. sentiment, soured further after the Oct. 7 attack. Jordan canceled an October summit that was meant to host Biden, though in February, Abdullah became the first Arab leader to visit Washington since the onset of the Gaza war. His visit, during which he advocated for a cease-fire in Gaza, reflects his awareness that engaging directly with Biden is a more sustainable and effective strategy than going through lower-level diplomatic channels.  

The War’s Impact on Jordan 

Prior to the war, Jordan had already been dealing with various challenges, including the smuggling of drugs and weapons over its border with Syria. The kingdom’s economy also continues to struggle, and continued U.S. assistance has played a role in maintaining its stability. Since the war began, those challenges have deepened, with economic impacts on tourism immediately after Oct. 7 and on trade coming from the Red Sea escalations. 

The kingdom “has been walking a high wire” with Washington since the Oct. 7 attack, Jawad Anani, former chief of the Royal Hashemite Court, told the author. “Jordan still believes the U.S. has the upper hand in bringing the parties together,” Anani said, adding that diminished U.S. prestige in the region could have consequences for the kingdom. A November 2023 University of Jordan poll showed 99% dissatisfaction among Jordanians with the U.S. stance on the conflict. 

The war also has increased Hamas’ popularity in Jordan, leading some to again call on the government to restore ties with the militant group. Such a move is unlikely; it would anger several of Jordan’s partners, including the U.S., and in April, officials and observers in Jordan accused the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas of inciting protests to destabilize the kingdom.  

The violence has caused concerns over refugees. Although the focus currently is on Gaza, Amman is also worried that the West Bank might be the next point of escalation, bringing with it a possible new influx of refugees and a host of political, economic, security, and demographic obstacles. In 2020, Abdullah warned of “massive conflict” with Israel if it proceeded with its plans to annex large parts of the West Bank. 

Amman has been clear that it will not accept more refugees, seeing the crisis as an Israeli attempt to settle the Palestinian conflict at the expense of Jordan. Washington understands the kingdom’s position, and some U.S. officials have privately acknowledged that countries such as Jordan have valid concerns.  

Jordan’s ability to see to the needs of Palestinian refugees was dealt a further blow when the U.S. and several other countries suspended funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) after Israel accused 12 of the agency’s employees in Gaza of participating in the Oct. 7 attack. While some nations eventually reinstated funding, the U.S. has not reversed its decision. The UNRWA took charge of all refugee expenses, including those for education and health care; the suspension leaves Jordan struggling to find alternative means to make up the deficit. 

The war has also increased Israeli-Iranian tensions. On April 13, Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles toward Israel in response to its strike on Tehran’s consulate in Syria earlier in the month. Jordan intercepted missiles and drones that entered its airspace during the attack, a move some social media activists interpreted as defending Israel. However, officials in Jordan insisted the move was in the context of self-defence and protection of the kingdom’s sovereignty. Abdullah made it clear that the kingdom “will not be a battlefield for any party.” 

The day after Iran’s attack, Jordan summoned the Iranian ambassador to the kingdom after a Fars news agency report cited “an informed source” in Iran’s armed forces saying the military was “carefully monitoring the movements of Jordan during the punitive attack against the Zionist regime, and if Jordan intervenes, it will be the next target.” 

Israel’s actions have prompted continuous popular protests in Jordan and calls for the government to cancel its peace treaty with Israel. While Jordanian public opinion has always opposed the treaty, and the relationship between Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is far from warm, the Jordanian government is aware that revoking the 1994 agreement would further strain the kingdom’s ties with the U.S., affecting the economic and military assistance Amman receives from Washington. Amman did recall its ambassador from Israel after mounting public pressure, but bilateral ties remain: In March, Amman reportedly asked Israel to extend a water-for-energy agreement for an additional year amid Jordan’s ongoing water crisis 

Jordan may view canceling the treaty as a move that would only push Israel to harm Amman’s interests. “It would be an invitation to Israel to push the Palestinians into Jordan and abolish Jordanian privilege and perquisites in the Muslim and Christian holy places,” former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Patrick Theros, who served as deputy chief of mission and political officer in Amman from 1987 to 1991, told the author. “It could also provide a pretext for Israel to seize the high ground on the East Bank of the Jordan Valley; old maps published by Zionists in the 1920s and 1930s included much of the East Bank as well as parts of Lebanon and Sinai.” 

“Jordan would abrogate the peace treaty only if Israel violates it in some grotesque manner, i.e., expelling West Bankers or Jerusalemites into Jordan,” Theros said. 

U.S. Troops in Jordan 

Abdullah’s February visit to Washington came two weeks after Iran-backed militias attacked the Tower 22 outpost in Jordan, killing three U.S. soldiers and wounding dozens more. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI), an Iranian-aligned militant network that includes factions such as Kataib Hezbollah, claimed responsibility for the assault. It is the first attack on Jordan by a militant group with ties to Tehran, and it shows such groups’ willingness to target U.S. interests outside Iraq and Syria. 

Before the late January attack, the Department of Defense had taken measures to support Tower 22, including adding electronic warfare measures, and in the aftermath, it added new “kinetic” systems to the outpost’s defenses. Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona, who previously served in the National Security Agency, CIA, and Defense Intelligence Agency, described the Tower 22 attack as a “wake-up call for the U.S. military.” Francona, who was also an adviser to the Jordanian Armed Forces in the 1980s, told the author, “Drone warfare is here and accessible to almost any group with even limited resources. Upgrading both the electronic and kinetic air defences at the base is a good thing, but in hindsight should have been there all along. … I hope the U.S commanders were not lulled into a false sense of security because the base is in Jordan.” 

The IRI’s goal is to expel U.S. forces from the region. In April after Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Kataib Hezbollah spokesperson Abu Ali al-Askari threatened to arm 12,000 fighters in Jordan, referring to them as the country’s “Islamic Resistance.” 

There is no evidence that suggests Kataib Hezbollah are capable of arming such a significant number of fighters in a foreign country. Nevertheless, the Tower 22 attack indeed stoked further anti-U.S. sentiment in Jordan and led to renewed calls on the Jordanian government to review the presence of U.S. troops in the country. This has put Amman in an awkward position as it tries to balance public sentiment with its partners in Washington. 

Over the foreseeable future, however, neither Washington nor Amman are likely to be interested in withdrawing the U.S. forces from the kingdom, which suggests a gap between the Jordanian establishment and the public on this matter. For one, the presence of U.S. forces in the kingdom is meant to support the country’s state security and its borders, whether from ISIS or pro-Iran militias. The U.S places an importance on Jordanian air bases for intelligence missions in Iraq and Syria.  

If the U.S. does not balance more between Israel’s and Jordan’s interests, the Jordanian public will increasingly turn against its government, threatening the kingdom’s stability. On the other hand, U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East would leave a vacuum that other countries such as Russia could take advantage of. It would also likely validate some of the concerns regarding long-term U.S. commitments to some of its regional partners.  

Although the Hamas-Israel war gave rise to differing U.S. and Jordanian views on the conflict, bilateral ties will survive, and close cooperation as well as U.S. assistance to Jordan will continue. U.S. policymakers, however, should continue to evaluate Washington’s relationship with Amman. Although Washington’s pro-Israel stance is unsurprising, it needs to pay more attention to the fact that the Gaza war poses an existential threat to a close regional partner.  

It is in the U.S. interest that Jordan remains internally stable, and Washington must do more to protect the kingdom’s borders from external threats, such as pro-Iranian militias. In October, Jordan asked the U.S. to station the Patriot air defense system in the country, reflecting its concerns regarding being caught in the middle of heightened regional tensions involving Iran. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to send more troops to Jordan, given how the U.S. military presence there already risks undermining the establishment’s internal security and legitimacy. Instead, Washington should continue to empower the Jordanian military to deal with any increased threat.  

Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa. Kilani’s work has been published in Arabic-language media outlets such as Alrai newspaper (Jordan), Ammon News (Jordan), Al Jazirah newspaper (Saudi Arabia), Alanbaa Alsiyasia newspaper (Morocco), Donia Al-Watan (Palestine). He has also published in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Lobelog, Middle East Monitor, Lobelog, TRT World, The Globe Post and Inside Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at @AZ_Kilani.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the New Lines Institute.

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