Israel's Plan to Supply the Arab World With Energy Is Under Threat in Jordan

Anti-Israeli gas protest in Jordan
A Jordanian police man stands guard during a protest against a government agreement to import natural gas from Israel, in Amman, Jordan, October 7. The placard reads: "The enemy's gas is occupation." Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Public protests and civil society campaigns have been gathering pace in Jordan in opposition to the $10 billion deal recently signed by the state-owned National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) and suppliers of Israeli gas, serving as a timely reminder of the limits of overt cooperation, economic or otherwise, between Israel and neighboring Arab states.

Activists have organized street rallies and staged sit-ins outside NEPCO's offices and in trade union gatherings. A rally in Amman on September 30 reportedly drew 2,000 people before being swiftly shut down by the police. On October 7 a "mass blackout" was held, in which protesters temporarily turned off their lights and electrical appliances.

The possibility of cooperation between the region's historical foes has been raised in recent years by the discovery of large, commercially exploitable gas reserves in the Mediterranean basin. The opportunities for "economic peace" are at the centre of the Israeli government's recent pitch for investment in its offshore exploration blocks. The theory, well-rehearsed by Israeli officials, is that by satisfying the large demand for energy in the Middle East with increasingly abundant Israeli gas, a new mutual interest between Israel and its neighbors is established.

The ambitious plan to supply gas to the Arab world showed some early signs of success. At the start of the decade, few would have predicted that within six years Israel would sign a multi-billion dollar agreement to supply gas to Jordan, as well as memoranda of understanding with the Palestinian Authority and clients in Egypt. Some Israeli commentators even began talking of the Arab economic boycott of Israel as a relic of the past. However, events in Amman suggest that the government may struggle to persuade Jordanians that such open cooperation with Israel is in their interest.

Opposition to Jordan's commitment to buy Israeli gas has been spearheaded by a new pressure group, the Jordanian National Campaign Against the Gas Agreement with the Zionist Entity. It campaigns alongside established political forces, including Jordan's Islamist Party, the Islamic Action Front, as well as the country's local Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions groups. Some members of Jordan's newly elected parliament have even reportedly threatened to resign over the issue when it convenes for the first time in November.

A degree of public opposition is to be expected in any deal between Israel and Arab parties. Both sides effectively factor it in as a feature of bilateral business relations and, so far, public protests against the Jordanian-Israeli gas deal have not approached the levels seen in 2011. The Jordanian government looks to have estimated that opposition to the deal will be short-lived and will not take on national proportions. It may yet turn out to be right, but protests continued over the weekend, including at the University of Jordan and in front of government buildings. Critics' concerns have not been assuaged by Prime Minister Al Mulki's defense of the deal, which he says will save Jordan $600 million on electricity bills. They demand that NEPCO follow the 2014 vote of Jordan's lower house, which rejected the deal.

NEPCO is not expected to cancel the deal but Jordan appears to have underestimated the level of public opposition it has unleashed. Some have suggested that this pressure caused the Jordanians to demand last-minute concessions from Israel over access to the West Bank market, which would help to sell the deal back home. Al Mulki was also forced into the uneasy position of having to defend accusations of siding with Israel and selling out the Palestinians.

The Jordanian monarchy and the government are particularly sensitive to public discontent. Unlike their Gulf neighbors, Jordan's ruling elites do not control vast energy reserves with which to satisfy their populations. Instead, they are reliant on expedient political alliances and local compromises to ensure support. This is particularly challenging given Jordan's fragile mosaic of Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees, various tribal factions, competing economic interests, and religiously opposing groups. These factors make the Jordan authorities particularly vulnerable to protracted public discontent. Should the grassroots campaign against the Jordanian-Israeli gas deal continue to develop, the Jordan's decision-makers will be forced to assess whether it is worth the political price of engaging with Israel.

The most significant outcome of the recent Jordanian protests against the energy agreement may not be the cancellation of the agreement, but rather the absence of another one. By raising the political price of "normalization" with Israel, anathema to the Arab street, protesters in Jordan are sending a clear message to their rulers. While a peace treaty may have been signed between elites in Jerusalem and Amman in 1994, the concept of an open commercial, cultural and political relationship does not enjoy popular support in 2016. The same sentiments can be felt across the Arab world, including in the Palestinian Authority, where a $1.2 billion gas deal with Israel was called off in March 2015 following civil society pressure.

As Israel seeks to drum up interest in its offshore gas exploration blocks, investors may well look to the outcome of the protests in Jordan to gauge the viability of Israel's regional export ambitions. For many years the Israeli government prioritised discreet ties with Arab security and intelligence establishments over public diplomacy in the region. The emergence of Israeli gas, however, creates a commercial incentive for stronger relations with the region's merchant classes and the wider public. Jordan's ongoing protests demonstrate the formidable scale of that challenge.

Natanel Abramov is a senior analyst at Alaco, a business intelligence consultancy.