Ian Bremmer the other day heralded the latest bout of "Jordan Option" trial balloons which always float when the going gets tough in Palestine:
Debate has begun in Palestinian and Jordanian newspapers - and in official circles on both sides of the Jordan river - over a plan to incorporate West Bank Palestinians into a confederation with Jordan, creating a kind of bi-national state with two governing assemblies.
Since I've been arguing for many years now that there is "no Jordan option," I might be expected to say the same thing now. But... here's the thing. The non-existence of a Jordan option rested on the argument that a national consensus in Jordan had been achieved on the severing of ties between Jordan and the West Bank - achieved in the 1991 National Pact, and then consolidated in the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. This consensus extended from powerful East Bank nationalists through the main Palestinian movements. Even Hamas, which never officially recognized the severing of ties, in practice honored it - with containing the Hamas trend being one of the main services Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood provided to the regime. It was one of the main domestic selling points of Jordan's peace treaty with Israel that it supposedly offered a final Israeli recognition that "Jordan is Jordan and not Palestine."
That consensus is as strong as ever, in some ways. The Jordanian public debate which Bremmer referenced has actually not been much of a debate - from what I've seen, it has been lots of columnists and politicians lining up to warn against any return to Palestine or confederation schemes (al-Ghad editor Ayman Safadi's piece yesterday, for instance, which labeled confederation a defeat for Jordan and for Palestinians and a victory for Israel). The difference now, however, is that King Abdullah simply doesn't care in the slightest about Jordanian public opinion. Unlike King Hussein, who for all his political flaws carefully monitored opinion in his kingdom and kept in close touch with trends, Abdullah doesn't seem to care much about the opinion of anyone other than his small team of Western-oriented advisors (the PowerPoint team) and his constituency in Washington. Since he put an end to the political crisis of 2004-2005, he has overseen a steady de-liberalization of the Kingdom, cracking down on public freedoms and going after the Islamist movement aggressively, with nary a peep from the Bush administration. Public opposition to the so-called Jordan option is as strong as ever, but the ability of public opinion to constrain Jordanian policy has dramatically shrunk.
On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abass may find himself with so few options, and so desperate to save his own (and Fatah's) skin that he's willing to do anything - even confederation with Jordan. No, this wouldn't be popular with Palestinians, but what does public opinion have to do with it? Fatah isn't popular either - don't believe the idea that Hamas rules Gaza while Fatah dominates the West Bank. Memories of Fatah's corrupt and ineffective rule of the Palestinian Authority haven't faded, and its open and close relations with the US and Israel won't endear Fatah to many Palestinians. Pushed to the wall, Abass might even go along with this out of a lack of options.
Hamas, for its part, might see less reason to honor its side of the old bargain under current conditions - hence the importance of Khaled Mishal's conversation with radical Jordanian nationalist Nahid Hattar, in which he tried to reassure Jordanians that it would. There is a lively debate in the Jordanian press about the future relations between a Hamas which controls Gaza and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, even if there isn't really one about confederation.
Finally, in Israel there's always been a Likud interest in pushing the Jordan option, which could return with Netanyah, and the Bush administration has never been shy of figures aligned with the Likud.
It wouldn't work, of course. It wouldn't solve Palestinian aspirations, and wouldn't solve Palestinian problems. Quite the contrary - it would remove what little buffer remains protecting Jordan from Palestine's problems. It quite probably would be the straw which finally breaks the Hashemite back. I know that everyone's been predicting Jordan's collapse for so many decades that everyone stops paying attention, but things are changing fast across the region. The country's already reeling with the effects of the Iraq crisis, which has transformed large chunks of the country (extending into Amman) into an extension of Iraq. The Palestinian crisis has been tearing up Jordanian politics, and right now most Jordanians just want to keep their country out of the way. If Abdullah's dumb enough to pursue this option - which, in effect, means that if American officials are dumb enough to push him to pursue it - that won't be an option. But after years and years of the Bush administration seizing every opportunity to make stupid mistakes which make things worse in the region, how confident can we be that it won't?