Unwanted: The $10 Billion Gas Deal With Israel That Jordan Needs

  • Regular street protests held to condemn import agreement
  • Jordan shows there’s still resistance to closer economic ties

Jordanians hold placards during a protest against a deal to buy Israeli natural gas in Amman, Jordan, on October 7.

Photographer: Khalil Maraawi/AFP/Getty Images

For one hour every Sunday, Alaa Wishah and his family sit at home in the dark.

The pharmacist in Jordan’s capital of Amman isn’t trying to save money. Wishah, his wife and their three children are joining the protest against a $10 billion energy import agreement with Israel that has revived old animosities in this part of the world.

"Even if the alternatives are harder and more expensive, we don’t want to get gas from the Zionist entity," said Wishah, 40. "It’s not theirs; it belongs to the Palestinians."

The weekly demonstrations in homes and on the streets of Amman are relatively low-key and unlikely to lead to a cancelation of a deal that would provide Jordan with gas for 15 years. What they highlight, though, is the resistance among some Arabs to turn closer economic ties from energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean into warmer relations with Israel.

Complications

The gas export contract is Israel’s first from its new Leviathan field. Shipments to Jordan will start by 2019, traversing Israel through a pipeline that is due for completion this year. It’s part of a series of planned energy agreements that are shaping politics in the region, for better or worse.

Turkey and Israel have patched up relations and are discussing a pipeline linking them. Talks on the reunification of Cyprus are advancing. Yet, there’s the war in Syria, a deepening dispute between Israel and Lebanon over maritime borders and domestic opposition in Jordan and Egypt.

"There are so many more complications than there are solutions to building the optimal deals in the eastern Mediterranean," Emily Hawthorne, Middle East and North Africa analyst at strategic advisory firm Stratfor, said from Austin, Texas. Israel "really wants to be able to use this strategically, to bring countries like Egypt and Jordan that it already has peace deals with closer,” she said.

Old Enemy

Many countries put energy and food supplies over politics. The U.S. buys oil from Venezuela and Russia while the Soviet Union bought American wheat during the Cold War in the 1970s.

On the face of it, the contract signed on Sept. 26 allows Jordan to replace supplies from Egypt that became unreliable in recent years after a pipeline that connects the countries was sabotaged by Egyptian militants more than 25 times.

Beneath the surface, though, suspicion and hostility remains, according to Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan. Israel is still seen by many Jordanians as an enemy despite a peace accord reached in 1994, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls the growing normalization with Arab countries as a “great and revolutionary process.”

"It is in a way cementing the practical relations with two Arab states, but it doesn’t change the map of political relations between Israel and the region," he said.

Campaigners

In Jordan, there are weekly protests organized by the “Jordanian National Campaign Against the Gas Agreement with the Zionist Entity.” Energy Minister Ibrahim Saif didn’t respond to requests for an interview via his office in Amman, while government spokesman Mohammad Momani told Jordanian television this month that the agreement doesn’t mean the country supports the occupation of Palestine and it will not become “hostage” to Israeli gas.

Wishah, the Amman pharmacist, said between 1,000 and 2,000 people have taken part in each rally. That attendance is much lower than those denouncing the removal of Jordanian government subsidies on cooking gas and other fuels in 2012, and many people in Amman are more concerned with economic hardship and security.

"If it’s in the interest of the country, it’s not wrong to get it from Israel,” said Mohammed Ali, 40, a mechanic in Amman. “What’s wrong are the protests. This is a country of security and safety and demonstrations cause problems."

The campaign’s coordinator, Hisham Bustani, said the government will struggle with the deal, especially because the pipeline that will carry the gas from Israel to Jordan might be at risk of sabotage. It also puts Jordan’s energy supplies at the mercy of Israel, he said.

"The gas will turn Jordanians into direct financiers of Israel and force them to normalize relations with it against their will," said Bustani, 41, a dentist. "It will accomplish what the peace treaty hasn’t achieved since 1994."

The Unmentionable

The Jordanian government is mindful of the difficulties, even with assurances that getting gas from Israel will be cheaper than importing it from other countries.

The kingdom’s state-run National Electric Power Co., or Nepco, was careful not to mention Israel in its official announcement of the deal. The gas will come from the Leviathan field and the agreement was signed between Nepco and U.S. company Noble Energy Inc., according to the Jordanian company. It made no mention of Noble’s other partners, including Israel’s Delek Drilling-LP.

Wishah won’t be deterred. His children, he said, are happy to participate in an action that’s meant to send a message to the government rejecting economic cooperation with Israel. He will continue to participate "so at least I can tell my children I tried to make a difference," he said.

— With assistance by Yaacov Benmeleh, Hayley Warren, and Mohammad Tayseer

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