Transjordan and Israel: Examining the Foundations of a Special Relationship

By Tamim K. Kashgari
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 1/2 |

With the Great Arab Revolt in 1915, the Hashemite family was catapulted to the forefront of Middle Eastern and became the literal symbols of Arab unity. Even after their failure to create a single Arab state, and the defeat of Prince Faisal at the hand of the French at Damascus the Hashemites remained the most legitimate political leaders of Arabism to the Arab public. It is with this legacy that Prince Abdullah was handed the state of Transjordan by the British in 1921. How then, could Abdullah the son of Sherif Hussien, the man that began the Arab revolt, have established a cordial relationship with the Zionist Movement?

Even before its creation the idea of had been a symbol of and the nearest threat that the “Arab Nation” faced. However, even with this dangerously heavy stigma, Abdullah secretly maintained direct relations with the Yishuv and later Israel on almost all levels. The desire for cooperation between Abdullah and the Zionist movement was not caused by any natural amity for each other. The roots of cooperation between the two parties were real political, economic and military objectives that could have not been secured without the combined effort and support of Israel and Transjordan. The objectives that Abdullah hoped to achieve through his relationship with the Zionist movement were the creation of an ally to secure the position of his state in the region as well as the creation of an opportunity to expand the size of his territory. However, the main driving purpose behind Abdullah’s relationship with the Zionist Movement, and later Israel, was the prospect of a viable and secure state from the territory given to him by the British.

The high commissioner's first visit to Transjordan, in Es-Salt.
The high commissioner's first visit to Transjordan, in Es-Salt. August 1920.

The Israeli and Transjordanian states were never destined allies and that in fact both states had ambitions that involved the absorption of the other state as well as a mutual fear of each other. Abdullah for example had ambitions for total control over the entire territory of Palestine including areas under Zionist control and attempted to advocate the advantages of such a state to both Britain and the Zionist movement1. The Zionist movement itself also had territorial ambitions as it viewed the protectorate of Transjordan as an integral part of Biblical Israel and desired to create settlements on both sides of the Jordan River2. Aside from plans that involved each other’s territories both states were also fearful of the expansion of the other party’s territories. There were certain elements within Israel that did not desire the annexations of the West Bank by Transjordan. One example of fear being generated by the possible expansion of Transjordan is Moshe Sharett’s telegram to Bechor Shirtrit when he said, “Without being able to totally remove from the agenda the possibility of the annexation of the Arab part of Western Palestine to Transjordan, we must prefer the establishment of an independent Arab state within Palestine.”, such sentiments were also echoed to some extent by David Ben-Gurion3. We can see from this that the relationship that developed between Transjordan and Israel was not completely friendly and amiable as both parties were fearful of each other. The cooperation between Israel and Transjordan can even be perceived to be one that is fostered by both parties in order to remove any pretext of that may arise between them.

There are uniquely Transjordanian circumstances that existed from the very beginning of its establishment in 1921 that drew Abdullah closer to the Zionist movement. The concept of Transjordan as an invented state is something that is highly recognized. The struggle against the lack of legitimacy for Transjordan is also a widely recognized problem that Abdullah faced. Winston Churchill perhaps provided the most damning quote against Transjordanian legitimacy when he said that he created it with a stroke of his pen on a Sunday afternoon4, which framed the perception of the new state in the region as artificial. The new protectorate of Transjordan also did not have much of a historical legacy to draw on as it lacked large urban centers. Amman the capital of this new state was merely a Circassian village of no more than 2000 people when the protectorate of Transjordan was created5.

As a result of this lack of historical or political legacy Transjordan’s legitimacy and sovereignty were constantly being called into question by almost all states around it. To Syria the new protectorate was a part of Southern Syria and thus an illegitimate state. To Ibn Saud the new protectorate of Transjordan was an extension of the Arabian Peninsula and he on occasion did manifest very clear intentions on annexing parts of the protectorate’s territory. Ibn Saud for example threatened to invade Aqaba in 1920’s as well as demand from the British to give him a direct border with Syria that would separate the two Hashemite Kingdoms of Transjordan and Iraq6. Thus one of Abdullah’s objectives in the build up to the 1948 war was to secure legitimate recognition for Transjordan in order to ensure its survival in the region. With hostility from Saudi Arabia and Syria and the ambition of Faisal in Iraq, Abdullah only had one more entity on his border that he could hope to persuade into recognizing his state and that was the Zionist movement. Abdullah’s need for recognition met perfectly with the Zionist leadership’s need for future recognition of the state of Israel, it was a perfect meeting of interests. The Yishuv leadership hoped that their relationship with Abdullah would allow them to gain the recognition of an Arab state, which would increase the security of their position in the region7. Abdullah as well saw that cooperation and recognition from the Zionist movement would help him secure his state in the region against many of the surrounding Arab states8. This need for legitimacy for both the leaderships of the Yishuv and Transjordan allowed for a of convenience to come about. Both states could only turn to each other for recognition due to the hostility of the surrounding states and hoped that their combined efforts would secure a permanent position for both their states in the region.

An important factor in Zionist-Transjordanian relations was the economic state of protectorate of Transjordan following its creation. The territory of Transjordan was an economically unique entity in the region due to the fact that did not possess any significant resources such as oil. Furthermore, the cultivatable land that it did possess was only a narrow strip that clung to the Jordan River and even then the output of these farms fell short of the descriptions of the Jordan valley as “undulating fields of wheat and barley9. These circumstances in Transjordan thus resulted in the area not being able to generate any large urban centers to match those in surrounding countries. This also meant that Transjordan was incapable of generating any substantial income independently.

In addition, the hostility of the surrounding states such as Saudi Arabia and Syria meant that Transjordan could not hope for any economic assistance from the surrounding Arab states. Thus, the only remaining option for Abdullah to strengthen the Transjordanian economy in order to increase the capabilities of his state and the standard of living for his subjects was economic cooperation with the Zionist movement. Abdullah’s personal experience may have also caused him to view economic cooperation as a positive on a personal level which is derived from his experience in Istanbul where he met many Jewish merchants, physicians and scholars and hoped that their Jewish counterparts in the Palestine Mandate would help him improve the economic conditions of his new state10. Such an endeavor was not difficult to begin by Abdullah as he could easily play on the desire of certain elements in the Zionist movement for land and investment on the eastern bank of the Jordan River as well as the desire of the Zionist leaders for economic cooperation with an Arab state that could lead to political cooperation.

A few significant examples of such cooperation between the Yishuv and Transjordan are the construction of a power plant by Zionist entrepreneur Pinhas Rutenberg as well as the joint Jewish-Transjordanian venture to extract potash from the Dead Sea11. Abdullah was also not shy in conveying assuring messages to draw in Jewish capital when he said in 1933, “The Jews in all the world will find in me a new Lord Balfour; and even more than this, Balfour gave the Jews land which was not his to give, I pledge my own land.”12. However, Abdullah was aware of the political impact that such economic cooperation could cause and made every effort to keep such cooperation out of the public realm of knowledge. Abdullah’s determination to continue conducting business with the Zionist movement even after British resistance and public rioting shows the desperate circumstance that the Transjordanian economy was enduring at the time. Abdullah also came to an agreement with the Zionist movement that he would provide them with information regarding the dealings between the Arab states and they would provide him with monetary gifts13. Cooperation with the Zionist movement was seen by Abdullah as the only path toward economic in order to create a stronger state and he would not let political or ideology hinder him his efforts in doing so.

Aside from the political and economic support that Abdullah was securing for Transjordan through his cooperation with the Zionist movement he also maintained this relationship for more aggressive polices. These aggressive policies that Abdullah wanted to pursue were plans to expand his holdings and territory beyond the protectorate of Transjordan. These ambitions for a large state in the that Abdullah wanted to create even predated his placement as the regent over the protectorate of Transjordan. The arrival of Abdullah on the territory of Transjordan was even motivated by his ambitions of taking control of Syria from and combining it with the throne of Iraq promised to him by the British14.

The British essentially gave Transjordan to Abdullah as a consolation prize in order to deter him from sparking a conflict with France; he was however not satisfied and maintained his ambitions of taking control of Syria. Abdullah’s ambition of territorial expansion was also motivated by the loss of the Hijaz to Ibn Saud15. Abdullah’s ambition for taking Syria also caused him to come at odds with the British, a circumstance that rarely occurred during the entire length of their relationship. This strain came when Britain forced Abdullah in 1924 to expel all suspected Arab nationalists from Transjordan in order to weaken Abdullah’s capability at striking France in order to protect their own interests16. Yet, Abdullah still continued to pursue his plan for a Greater Syria into the late 1940’s even after Syrian independence. Abdullah twice presented to the Arab League a resolution that justified and dictated a plan in which to facilitate the abortion of the newly independent Syrian state by Transjordan, the move quickly drew condemnation from across the region as Transjordan’s three main rivals, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia joined together to condemn the actions of Abdullah17. However, even before such incidents of resistance on the part of Syria to Abdullah the Hashemite Emir was already taking steps to strengthen his position in order to overcome such obstacles. Abdullah’s need to increase the capabilities of his new state in order capture Syria in turn focused his attention to the Arabs and Arab lands of Mandate Palestine.

This concern that Abdullah had regarding Arab Palestine and Palestinians at the time is another point of convergence of Transjordanian and Zionist interests. For each party the Palestinians represented different things, for Abdullah the Palestinians and their land represented a possible initial power and population base that could be used to fuel future expansion while for the Zionist movement the Palestinians represented their direct competitors to the land and resources present in Mandate Palestine. Through these perspectives a common perception arose in minds of Transjordanian and Yishuv leadership that an organized and established Palestinian state represented a threat to them18. Abdullah’s concern for Palestine was always secondary to plans of capturing Syria. It wasn’t until 1947 that it came to hold a more significant importance in the concerns of the Transjordanian King. Even prior to it occupying a role of prominence the political movements and figures in Palestine that demand total independence gained the mutual animosity from Abdullah and the leadership of the Yishuv. Furthermore, Palestine and Transjordan were already drawn together through economic interests. With both areas being part of the Palestine mandate, free movement across the Jordan River caused Transjordanians to serve as seasonal labor in Palestine and Palestinians to serve as bureaucrats in Transjordan, both regions also shared a common currency, the Palestine pound19.

As a result the economic well being of Transjordan became tied to Arab Palestine. Consequently, the potential loss of Arab Palestine through conquest or independence forecast an almost total collapse of the Transjordanian economy as its workers would be deprived of jobs and its government would be deprived of educated employees. So the increased concern of Abdullah and his opposition of Arab nationalists through the late 1940’s as tensions between the Jewish and Arab communities in the region increased is quite understandable as it threatened the economic welfare of his state. So it was with the hope of gaining control over Arab Palestine that Abdullah worked to undermine cooperation between elements of the Palestinian polity by supporting British action in cracking down on and removing elements such as Mohammed Amin Al-Husayni from the area20. The Zionist movement also supported such action against the yet uncreated Palestinian state and found Abdullah due to interest that he had in the region the perfect partner in ensuring that a Palestinian state would not be created.

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