By Ghazi Jarrar (twitter:@ghazijarrar)
In an unusual step, Jordan’s parliament voted last Wednesday in favor of a memorandum petitioning the government to expel the Israeli ambassador in Amman, and to recall the Jordanian ambassador in Tel-Aviv. Eighty-seven members of the Lower House are threatening to withdraw their vote of confidence if Prime Minister Abdullah al-Nsour does not comply with the memorandum.
In real terms, the memorandum does not mean a great deal. While the Israeli ambassador is said to have left the country for consultations, Jordan’s relations with Israel are unlikely to be seriously altered in the foreseeable future. The motives behind this memorandum, however, are worthy of analysis. An understanding of the motives reveals more about this Parliament and its role in the current political context.
The current Parliament is celebrated by the Jordanian regime as a “milestone” on the path towards democracy. To be sure, this Parliament held extensive consultations with the Royal Court before al-Nsour was appointed, and the Prime Minister had to fight hard to win a narrow confidence vote.
The inconvenient truth, however, is that the current parliamentarians enjoy limited legitimacy in the eyes of most Jordanians. Even before Parliament held its first session, the imbalanced election law guaranteed that many Jordanians felt unrepresented by their MPs. The formation of non-partisan coalitions during the consultations did little to change that feeling. As for its performance, the Lower House still plays a minimal role in decision-making. After all, al-Nsour’s government hardly resembles a parliamentary government. Additionally, the reoccurring scenes of violence and chaos under the dome are only contributing to the overall negative feeling.
These reasons, coupled with the regime’s high expectations of this Parliament’s role in the reform process, make the MPs eager to seek any opportunity to acquire some belated legitimacy.
In the light of the connection that Jordanians have with Jerusalem, Israel’s latest violations (including the arrest of the Grand Mufti) presented themselves as an opportunity for the MPs to gain popularity points. Jordan’s previous parliaments were vocal about similar Israeli violations, but rarely did they go as far as to threaten to withdraw their confidence from the government. While this unprecedented step may be representative of genuine Jordanian frustration with continuous Israeli violations, it is also evidence for how desperately MPs need legitimacy at this stage.
This urgent need for legitimacy is partly motivated by the regime’s emphasis on the importance of this Parliament in pursuing reform, but also because many MPs feel frustrated with al-Nsour. Dissatisfaction with the PM has united two contrasting camps in the Lower House: the reformers – who are unsatisfied with the pace of reform, and the conservatives – who feel alienated by some of the PM’s policies. For both camps, the Israeli violations were an opportunity to embarrass al-Nsour and potentially bring down his government.
To be sure, a great deal of the dissatisfaction with al-Nsour is merely personal. A number of MPs felt that al-Nsour “tricked” them during the consultations to form his government. As part of a promised cabinet reshuffle, the PM promised to assign ministerial positions to members of the Lower House. A number of MPs felt betrayed when al-Nsour appeared to back away from his promises.
The issue was put to rest on Sunday when King Abdullah told the MPs that he feels that Parliament’s by-law reforms, not ministerial positions, should be the priority at this stage. While it has put this issue to rest, the King’s statement did little to change the dissatisfaction of a number of MPs with al-Nsour. These MPs are likely to continue to pressure al-Nsour by pressing ahead with the memorandum.
In addition to local legitimacy and personal issues with the PM, the memorandum served the purpose of winning the MPs some regional legitimacy. Hamas, Egyptian Nasserites, and Hezbollah praised the move. For the MPs, acknowledgement from such regional players means more prestige, and greater political weight within Jordan. Particularly, parliamentarians who associate with the ‘Resistance Axis’ -made up of Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran- were heartened to receive praise from Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah. This pro-Assad camp is in desperate need to voice its opposition to Jordanian involvement in Syria.
Beyond the personal gains, there is limited evidence to show that Parliament appreciates the potential costs to ending ties with Israel. For one, relations with Israel are known to play a role in securing the much-needed American aid. Indeed, this brings to question the credibility of this Parliament, and its ability to take steps towards forming responsible parliamentary governments. It may well be that this Parliament was prematurely overburdened with the responsibility to be the mellow fruit of Jordan’s mild Arab Spring.