AMMAN - Jordan's king announced Sunday that two pieces of land leased by Israel would be returned to the “full sovereignty” of Jordan as the two countries marked a chilly 25th anniversary of their landmark peace agreement.
Israel has controlled the agricultural lands for over 70 years and had been permitted to lease the areas under the 1994 peace agreement, with the assumption that the arrangement would be extended once again. Even amid mistrust and a looming deadline, Israel was hoping a solution could be found. But King Abdullah II's announcement to parliament seemed to put an end to that and Jordan is set to reclaim full control of the areas this week.
“I announce the end of the annex of the two areas, Ghumar and Al-Baqoura, in the peace treaty and impose our full sovereignty on every inch of them,” he said.
It marked a new blow to relations that began with great optimism but have steadily deteriorated. Following up on a historic interim peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians a year earlier, Israel's then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin and the late King Hussein of Jordan signed a peace agreement on Oct. 26, 1994 with President Bill Clinton in attendance and all three leaders delivered moving speeches promising warm relations and a better future. It was only the second peace deal between Israel and an Arab country, following Egypt.
The accord remains a vital strategic asset for both countries, who maintain tight security cooperation and joint economic projects. But with little progress toward a Palestinian state, the close contact hasn't trickled down to the average citizen _ especially in Jordan, where most people have Palestinian roots. Israeli policies in east Jerusalem, where Jordan has custodial rights over Muslim holy sites, have also raised tensions.
Last year, Jordan chose not to renew a clause of the peace treaty that granted Israel use of two enclaves inside Jordanian territory, called Tsofar and Naharayim in Hebrew.
Naharayim, located along the Jordan River in northern Israel, has become a popular tourist site. It includes a small park and picnic area, the ruins of a historic power station and the “Island of Peace,” where Israelis can briefly enter Jordanian territory without having to show their passports.
The site has a painful history. In 1997, a Jordanian soldier opened fire at an Israeli crowd, killing seven schoolgirls on a class trip. After the shooting, King Hussein traveled to Israel to ask forgiveness from the girls' families. Twenty years after his death, Hussein remains a beloved figure in Israel for what was seen as a courageous act.