Israel seeks deal with Jordan to save peace treaty land lease

What happened: Israeli officials are engaged in urgent talks to reverse a Jordanian decision to terminate a 25-year lease clause in the bilateral peace treaty that allows Israeli farmers to use two small areas of territory along the Israeli-Jordanian border.

  • Since 1994, Israel has leased Naharayim in the north of the Jordan valley and the Tzofar enclave in the southern Arava region. The areas include 247 acres cultivated by Israeli farmers.
  • Israel had hoped that when the lease came up for renewal it would be extended, but instead Jordan’s King Abdullah II announced on 20 October 2018 that he would cancel the lease and it would formally expire on 10 November 2019.

Context: The Israel-Jordan peace treaty was signed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan’s King Hussein on 26 October 1994. The Naharayim and Tzofar areas were the subject of competing land claims and a creative solution was reached in the treaty whereby the territory would be handed over to Jordan but Israel leased it back on a 25-year renewable term.

  • Naharayim also includes the man-made ‘Island of Peace’ and a hydroelectric power plant.
  • Last year King Abdullah II explained that by refusing to renew the lease, Jordan was: “Practicing our full sovereignty on our land. Our priority in these regional circumstances is to protect our interests and do whatever is required for Jordan and the Jordanians.”
  • Jordan is increasingly concerned about the perceived erosion of their role as a guardian of religious rights on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and perceived violations of the status quo agreement there, a claim the Israeli government adamantly rejects.  Earlier this week the  Jordanian speaker of Parliament warned the peace treaty is “under threat” due to Israeli “violations” in Jerusalem.
  • As part of the 1994 peace treaty, Israel supplies Jordan with 45 million cubic metres of water every year. Due to increased desalination capacity Israel has been able to increase the supply to 55 million cubic metres. Last year Jordan asked to increase the amount to 100 million cubic metres and it was thought that a compromise on the land lease might be linked to increased water supply from Israel.
  • In 1997 a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of 13-14-year-old Israeli school girls on a field trip to the Naharayim ‘Island of Peace’.  Seven girls were killed and six injured. King Hussein visited the victim’s families and offered forgiveness in the name of his country.

Looking ahead: Israeli media have reported that King Abdullah II has agreed that Israeli farmers will be allowed to continue working their fields and harvest their crops for one more season which would amount to a 6-month lease extension. The Jordanian Foreign Minister later denied any plans to extend the lease and insisted that the it will expire as planned on 10 November.

  • A protest against the lease termination will take place in Naharayim on Friday morning and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has confirmed his attendance.
  • Israeli officials are still confident of a breakthrough in the talks that leads to a longer lease extension but Jordan’s refusal so far to reach a deal has been linked by commentators to the poor state of bilateral relations which were not helped by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s election announcement to unilaterally annex the Jordan Valley if re-elected.