Majed Jaber / Reuters / Landov

In Jordan, ‘pipeline for peace’ with Israel strikes a nerve

Jordanians react with fierce opposition to $15B gas-buying deal from Israel. But do they have another choice?

AMMAN, Jordan — The government of Jordan has a plan to diversify its fuel supply and save its economy over $4 billion, amid a potentially destabilizing energy crisis, by purchasing gas from Israel. There’s only one hitch: nearly everyone in Jordan is against it.

With a nudge from Washington, its most important ally, Jordan in September quietly signed a memorandum of understanding on a $15 billion deal that could start meeting 30 percent of the country’s electricity demand by 2018. The kingdom of 6 million people, which imports 97 percent of its energy supplies, has long relied on its Arab neighbors to keep the lights on. But violence in the Sinai Peninsula has shuttered the pipeline from Egypt that once supplied most of Jordan’s gas and fewer drivers are willing to make the perilous journey across ISIL-held territory in Iraq to deliver fuel.

Desperate for a cheap and reliable solution, Jordan's government negotiated a private contract between the state-owned energy company, NEPCO, and the U.S.-based Noble Energy, which is developing Israel’s Leviathan gas fields. Since the government announced the deal, however, Jordanians — from shopkeepers to parliamentarians — have grown increasingly outraged by the idea they could soon be paying the Israeli government to heat their homes with gas they consider stolen from Palestinians.

"No matter what the government says, the people will never accept this," said Hind al-Fayez, a member of Jordan’s parliament known for her fiery tirades against the deal. “Why do we want to import gas from the only enemy the Arab people know?”

Hind al-Fayez, a Jordanian lawmaker who vehemently opposes the gas deal with Israel.
Michael Pizzi

An overwhelming majority of Jordan's usually fractured political opposition agrees with her. In a rare act of defiance against the crown last December, parliament voted 107 to 13 in favor of a nonbinding resolution that urged the government to cancel the memorandum of understanding with Noble.

In conjunction, a coalition of civil society and labor groups have organized rallies across the country under the slogan, “The enemy's gas is occupation.” In the latest demonstration on May 26th, the first workday after Jordanian Independence day, dozens of protesters gathered at the front gates of parliament holding “bloodstained” electric bills to represent the ethical compromise their government is taking to save money. Other marches have drawn thousands.

The anger over Jordan’s gas deal with Israel is a test of whether 21 years of peace between the two countries, long held up as a model for Arab-Israeli coexistence, has brought them any closer on a societal level. Despite the best efforts of their shared benefactor, the United States, Jordan and Israel have only managed to achieve a modest $300 million annual trade due to the same political difficulties that are holding back the gas deal. Even that trickle is uncomfortable for Jordanians, as evidenced by the fact that produce vendors usually remove tags from Israeli mangoes or carrots before displaying them on their stands.

“American officials see this at a distant angle. They want Arabs and Israelis to work together and forget about their problems,” said Nabil Sharif, a former Jordanian government minister. “But I'm afraid this is too simplistic and idealistic of a vision. From an Arab perspective, it neglects the fact that Palestinian rights have been robbed.”

The reason the stakes are so high for the gas deal is that it could be a turning point for Israeli integration with the region. According to Hisham Bustani, a writer and part-time dentist who serves as the anti-pipeline campaign’s coordinator, the deal would be the biggest agreement that an Arab country has carried out with Israel since the 1994 Wadi Araba peace treaty normalized relations with Jordan. Resentment over Wadi Araba remains palpable among Jordan’s majority Palestinian population, many of whom see it as a betrayal and a critical factor behind Israel's survival in an otherwise hostile Middle East.

But while Wadi Araba, a diplomatic deal, mostly affected political elites, the gas deal would pump normalization into the homes and offices of every single Jordanian, Bustani said. “They’re forcing the entire population to finance Israel’s economy, its army, its settlements and wars. This is something far more dangerous than a peace treaty.”

‘Why do we want to import gas from the only enemy the Arab people know?’

Hind al-Fayez

Jordanian parliamentarian

Jordan’s government has not released detailed estimates of where the $15 billion will go, but a study commissioned by the anti-gas deal campaign found that over $8 billion in royalties and taxes would be paid directly to Israel’s government over the contract’s 15-year duration. “The last war on Gaza cost $2.7 billion, so we would be financing at least three more of those,” Bustani said, referencing last summer’s bombing campaign and ground invasion in Gaza, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinian civilians.

Given the legacy of mistrust in Jordan and Israel over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are also existential fears about placing the country's energy security in Israeli hands. “You’re talking about the most important nerve of the Jordanian economy, of Jordanian life. Nobody would trust Israel to control the valve that pumps this gas,” said Rula Alhroob, a member of Jordan’s parliament. “What will happen is that Jordan will no longer be able to object to Israeli policies in the Holy Land. There will be a political cost to this.”

Energy Minister Ibrahim Saif and his predecessor, Mohammed Hamed, have tried to focus the public on other parts of Jordan’s energy security plan, including a brand new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Aqaba that will receive deliveries of gas from the Gulf. Several nascent solar projects are also in the works. But ready-to-use gas from a pipeline is the cheapest option, saving Jordan $250 million per year according to ministry estimates. “For a long time, Jordan has relied on natural gas from Egypt, and we did not have a plan B for when this is cut off,” said Hamed, who served as Energy Minister during much of the negotiations with Israel but no longer speaks officially for the government. “We’re talking about long term, 10-15 years from now. We cannot rely on only one source.”

At another protest on April 17, hundreds of Jordanians shouted slogans against the gas deal following Friday Prayer at the Al Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman.
Salah Malkawi / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Amos Hochstein, the State Department’s special envoy on energy issues, who has been involved in negotiating the deal, agreed. The LNG facility in Aqaba is helpful “as a backstop” while more permanent solutions are found, Hochstein said, “but it’s still more expensive than anything you’re going to get out of the Israeli market.” Though he emphasized the need to incorporate renewable options and work with other neighbors, including Iraq, “if you take out one critical piece, it’s hard to say how you don’t have rolling blackouts or an energy crisis.”

Backers of the pipeline may also be gambling that if power costs were to spike, popular resolve against the deal would fade. “Some of the worst riots and protests in Jordan’s modern history have come in response to dramatic price increases for food or energy supplies,” noted Curtis Ryan, an expert on Jordanian politics at Appalachian State University. In late 2012, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets after the government briefly lifted fuel subsidies. As one million Syrian refugees strain Jordan’s economy and unemployment soars, claims that a majority of Jordanians would rather pay more for their electricity than accept a compromise with Israel seem “a difficult prospect at best,” Ryan said.

Still, critics of the deal say it would only trade one form of dependency for another. Maher Hijazin, the former head of Jordan’s Natural Resources Authority, agreed with the government estimate that Israeli gas agreement could save Jordan up to $250 million per year compared to the equivalent power generated by LNG. “But you’re still depending on one country, and this one is supposedly your enemy,” he said. “For me, the bribe is not worth it."

Parliament, meanwhile, wants the government to at least explore a similar deal with Qatar, a regional power broker with large natural gas reserves that Amman has traditionally been at odds with. According to several members of parliament who spoke to Al Jazeera, the Jordanian energy ministry has insisted it would be too expensive to ship gas from the Gulf. Qatari officials, however, told a parliamentary committee that no price estimate was ever finalized.

On the street in Jordan, it is hard to find anyone who will publicly admit they could ever back the deal. At his shop in bustling downtown Amman, just a few steps from the Grand Husseini mosque, Samir al-Kalha, in his late 50s, admitted that his business has suffered in recent months but said he would still take a steeper electric bill over Israeli gas. Still, he expects the deal will go ahead anyway. “In the end,” he shrugged, “if the government’s interests call for taking gas from Israel, then that’s what it will do.”

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