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Jordan: What's behind parliament's U-turn on Israeli investments ban?

Most Jordanians remain deeply hostile to normalisation with Israel [AFP]

Date of publication: 24 May, 2016

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In-depth: Parliament passed a law allowing Israeli companies to invest in a sovereign wealth fund after first suggesting it would ban them, in a move condemned as hypocritical by activists.
Jordanian MPs made a surprising U-turn in the space of a few hours on allowing Israeli companies to invest in proposed Jordanian investment fund(s), first banning Israeli companies then reversing the ban.

It was not immediately clear why parliament voted in favour of two completely conflicting proposals on the same day, one in the morning session and the other in the evening session.

Following parliament's second motion, the prime minister Abdullah Ensour claimed the move served Jordanian interests "and was not dictated to us by anyone."

However, Jordanian activists who support boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel hinted an intervention by higher authorities had swayed the MPs back into the fold.

If it had been successful, the ban would have had marked a precedent in Jordanian-Israeli relations since the peace treaty between them was signed in 1994.

If it had been successful, the ban would have had marked a precedent in Jordanian-Israeli relations since the peace treaty between them was signed in 1994.

That treaty ended all forms of official hostility between the two countries, but never succeeded in convincing the Jordanian people of pursuing "normalised" relations with Israelis.

During the morning session held to discuss a bill on establishing sovereign investment vehicles for the kingdom, MP Roula Hroub proposed a motion to ban Israeli companies from investing in the fund(s).

The motion initially received broad support from her colleagues. In addition to having concerns about powerful Israeli companies coming to hold stakes in sensitive parts of the country's economy, they were also thinking about the upcoming election, where anti-Israeli positions are popular.

Present on the floor during the vote in favour of the ban on Israeli companies' investments was Ahmed Dawabsheh, the only surviving member of the family burned alive by Israeli settlers last year. The MPs were keen to take selfies with the boy, flashing victory signs in solidarity with Palestine.

The ban would have been set in law through excluding Israeli companies from the definition clause of the sovereign investment fund.

"A fund is defined as a shareholding company established by Arab sovereign investment funds and Arab and foreign investments companies with the exception of Israeli ones," read the first draft.

The ban would have been set in law through excluding Israeli companies from the definition clause of the sovereign investment fund.

The euphoria of the public opinion, which is mostly opposed to having normal relations with Israeli businesses and entities, was short-lived.

In a later session, MP Haditha al-Kharisha introduced a new motion, removing the clause "with the exception of Israeli ones" in the bill. The MPs, many of whom had voted in favour of the initial ban, voted in favour of reversing it.

Even Baathist pro-Assad MP and member of the Palestine Committee Rudaina al-Ati voted in favour of the about-face. Quarrels and mutual accusations erupted inside parliament.

'Political adolescence'

"The parliament's actions are an act of political adolescence," Mubarak Abu Yamin, jurist and former legal committee head in parliament, told The New Arab.

"It was not about legislation as much as it was about searching for popularity," he added.

Yamin criticised the parliament's record on deals with Israel, saying it has consistently failed to reflect the popular will in that regard and stop the government's economic plans with Tel Aviv.

Activists launched a social media campaign to criticise the parliament's flip-flopping, publishing pictures of the MPs in question.

Outside parliament, activists launched a social media campaign to criticise the parliament's flip-flopping, publishing pictures of the MPs in question.

One hashtage used was "I am Jordanian and I refuse Israeli investment (in Jordan)".

The activists accused the parliamentarians of collaborating with Israel and of being subservient, and suggested the security services influenced the decision of the MPs.  

"The decision of the parliament to allow Israel to participate in the sovereign investment fund is predictable for a parliament that Jordanians know doesn’t control its own decisions" the head of the anti-normalisation campaign in trade unions Majed Majali told The New Arab.

"After normalisation failed at the popular level the government is trying to get it passed at the official level," he said, referring to popular reluctance to buy Israeli goods in Jordan.

Protests have since been called outside parliament against the move.

Trade between Jordan and Israel declined from about $345 million in 2008 to about $139 million in 2014.

The Jordanian and Israeli governments, Majali said, have thus sought to upgrade government-to-government economic relations to bypass the popular level, citing bilateral projects such as the Dead Sea project and a deal to import Israeli gas, which face strong opposition from BDS campaigners.

Trade between Jordan and Israel declined from about $345 million in 2008 to about $139 million in 2014.

The goal of the Investment Fund Law, the government initially said, was mainly to organise investment relations between Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the context of preparations for the establishment of a Jordanian-Saudi Coordination Council agreed recently.

According to the bill, sovereign funds and Arab and foreign investment institutions are to establish a shareholding company or more to invest in development rights and in projects listed in the bill.

These include sensitive projects such as a national railway network, the electricity interconnectivity project with Saudi Arabia and a pipeline to transfer crude oil and fuel derivatives to the Jordan Petroleum Refinery Company.

It is not clear, however, whether this now means there could be overlap between Israeli and Saudi investments.

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