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A border not crossed

I was wandering around Amman’s Ministry of Interior Circle for a couple of hours, twice. I tried popping in nearly every shop around, but no-one knew where Istanbul Restaurant was.

No, no Turks are involved in this story. Instead, Amman’s Istanbul was apparently the first Kosher restaurant throughout Jordan. Less than a year after the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was signed, both The Economist and the New York Times brought the story of the rise and fall of what had seemed to be a promising enterprise of two wishful businessmen from the two countries.

And indeed something – a lot more substantial – isn’t working. In the course of 15 years, the bilateral relations produced a lot less fruits for the people on both sides of the Jordan River than they should have. At least from the Jordanian perspective, the Palestinian issue is the main hurdle. In my view and without underestimating the Palestinian issue it’s the major distrust and critical lack of mutual confidence which stand between the two peoples, far stronger than any physical barrier.

Mother and child, Jordan Valley

The peace treaty’s 15th anniversary (not) celebrated on October 26th, provided a brief glimpse at the state of things. Ynet, Israel’s leading news website, settled with merely reporting about Jordanian op-eds. Coupled with the Jerusalem Post’s editorial, none of them called for any introspection. Their (English-language) Jordanian counterparts made a somewhat more significant contribution with an interesting commentary on the Jordan Times and an extensive (though, again one-sided) piece on The Star.

It’s always interesting to read commentators and publicists usually writing about the diplomatic, political high-ranking level. But with all due respect to the elaborated analyses of the issues at stake with all of the above examples focused on Jordan all these texts lack the humane voice. What do Israelis know about Jordanians (or Jordan at all)? What do Jordanians know about Israeli people? As far as it comes to Israelis, I would argue their knowledge of Jordanians comparable to their knowledge of Palestinians, Egyptians and I dare saying even Germans and Swedes. Furthermore, excluding the variety of political experts, none of the media outlets on both sides bothered to bring the voices of its own people.

But no one should be surprised. Jordanian affairs are rarely picked by the Israeli media radars. At the same time, Jordanian media dedicate quite some space for news from Israel. Indeed, none of them have correspondents in Israel (just like none of the Israeli media outlets have correspondents in Jordan) and they mostly rely on agencies dispatches. But translating and posting excerpts from the Israeli media is a rather common practice among some of the Kingdom’s newspapers (a cross-border study already tried exploring the view of the media in each country of the other).

The state-run Petra news agency, for example, operates a Hebrew department, and apparently there are some Jordanians interested in learning the language or the Jewish religion. Some of them attend the courses offered by at least two universities in Jordan (a ten-year old study tried understanding why).

An article on the Israeli-Jordanian relations published five years ago was titled Israel, Jordan and the Peace: A Barometer. Reading through it today inevitably ends with the frustrating conclusion that not much has changed since.

A Jordanian friend of mine used the same (now hackneyed) term of “cold peace” and added that it fluctuates just like the weather. While the “default temperature” is low, it gets far lower (and essentially stormy) as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalates, with the most recent peak being the war in Gaza.

Much of the credit for this attitude goes, not only to political factions, but also to the civil society and mainly the professional unions. Dominating much of the private sector in Jordan, they advocate against any attempt for normalization. I had my own encounters with the ban on any connection with whatever and whoever has to do anything with Israel, even in the places where I least expected it. But I eventually realized that it’s less an issue of a personal ideology and more of a professional risk people are sometimes not willing to take.

Flags on the road

Besides business, the simplest way to get to know people in other countries is while traveling. For Jordanians, I understand, it’s nearly impossible to come to Israel, not necessarily for technical reasons (and the King confirmed). Israelis, however, are advised by the National Security Council “to avoid a visit/stay throughout Jordan”, explaining “ongoing threats and hostility of some parts of the Jordanian public constitute a threat for Israelis in Jordan.”

Nevertheless, many Israelis do go to visit the neighboring kingdom, though mainly to Petra (few others go to Aqaba and Wadi Rum). Those short visits often not even including an overnight stay are ultimately considered by the Jordanians more as a burden than a benefit (especially when the tourists bring their own food), as the Tourism Minister put in an interview to The Star late last year. Needless to say these brief sallies are anything but an opportunity to get to know any of the local residents.

And that’s probably yet another example clarifying that the frigid peace is apparently the desired status-quo. But this is certainly not the way things should be. A cross border cooperation between two counties so different, yet have so much in common, can garner both peoples with numerous opportunities. Moreover, for quite a number of issues, normalized relations are the key to countless challenges, and are therefore in the interest of everyone around.

The fact that Israeli-Jordanian initiatives, such as the “bio pest control” along the Jordan Valley, the recent joint earthquake drill and Amman’s Kosher restaurant get the media attention is just another evidence for them being handful.

And the solution lies within the people themselves. Any change will necessarily be from down upwards, and it’s the most trivial component that’s missing: People from both counties have to meet; they (read: we) must get to know each other personally before any substantial shift can take place and before we start putting the blame on our leaders. It might take, though, a few coffees and nargileh before inaugurating Jordan’s second Kosher restaurant or opening the first place to serve Mansaf in Tel Aviv.