Quietly and with barely any public confrontation, Israel is creating a new enemy for itself: the Kingdom of Jordan. In the situation that we justifiably or unjustifiably find ourselves now — boycotted and isolated — we do not need to lose the only Arab state with which we have peace-like relations.
This is the story: Jordan is a poor country, lacking almost any natural resources, that spends billions of dollars each year to import 95 percent of its electricity. But in 2007, at least 65,000 tons of uranium ore was found in the Jordanian desert — the 11th-largest deposit of uranium in the world. Jordan is now taking international bids to build a 1,100-megawatt reactor, the first in a planned series of plants that would allow the country to produce a substantial part of the electricity it needs and, by 2030, to export power to its neighbors in the Middle East.
The Obama administration, however, is trying to dissuade Middle Eastern countries from producing their own atomic fuel; the fear is that any low-level uranium enrichment would inevitably lead to high-level enrichment of bomb-grade materials — and then to a regional arms race. As a result, American diplomats are trying to prevent Jordan from getting the necessary technology unless it agrees to purchase its nuclear fuel on the open markets rather than use its own uranium.
Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, is furious and, to make matters worse, he is convinced that the demands of the United States are the result of Israeli pressure. The last thing Israel needs today is a confrontation with Jordan on this subject.
Jordan is a stable, pro-Western Arab country, which signed a peace agreement with Israel — a peace that has survived grave challenges in recent years. What’s more, Jordan is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which explicitly allows participants to enrich uranium for peaceful power production. And the king has continuously affirmed his willingness for transparency on all matters relating to the production of nuclear power plants.
Why should his country be denied the right to use its own uranium to produce energy? Why suspect his country of doing exactly what it has said it won’t do? Why deny Jordan nuclear technology out of fear of some “worst-case scenario” whereby his regime collapses and is replaced by one that attempts to develop a bomb? This could occur in many other places.
Indeed, the United Arab Emirates recently agreed to a deal with the United States like the one Washington wants Amman to sign — the emirates, having agreed to purchase uranium on the international market, are planning to build a $20 billion nuclear reactor. Similar deals are being worked out with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But none of those states have uranium deposits, and Jordan does.
King Abdullah is a great believer in peace in our region. For example, a few years ago, he expressed his unreserved support for the peace plan presented by the Geneva Initiative, of which I am the head, in a public appearance before a joint session of Congress. Other Arab leaders merely expressed their support behind closed doors.
There is a certain risk in allowing Jordan to enrich uranium so close to Israel’s border, but the risk in denying the king’s request is far greater. Indeed, there is much more at stake here than Jordan’s desire to establish power plants for electricity. This is about how Israel treats its pragmatic neighbors, like President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and King Abdullah. Do we strengthen those who want peace and stability in the region or, with the help of the American government, do we turn our backs on them?
We must remember that extremists are always there, lurking behind the shoulders of pragmatists in anticipation of their downfall.
Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli minister of justice, the head of the Geneva Initiative, an independent peace organization.