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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

US signs 5-year aid package with Jordan

It came despite repeated threats by Trump to cut aid to countries that opposed his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi shake hands in Amman on February 14, 2018. Raad Adayleh / AP
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi shake hands in Amman on February 14, 2018. Raad Adayleh / AP

President Donald Trump's rhetoric on punishing countries that disagree with US policy in the Middle East collided with reality on Wednesday as his administration announced it would boost aid to Jordan by more than $1 billion over the next five years.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi signed the increased aid package in Amman. It represents a 27 per cent increase on current levels and is two years longer than the existing one negotiated by the Obama administration.

It came despite repeated threats by Mr Trump to cut aid to countries that opposed his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Mr Tillerson called the package "a signal to the rest of the world that the US-Jordan partnership has never been stronger".

Jordan is a critical American partner in the Middle East but has opposed Washington's approach to Israel and Palestine. In December, Amman voted to condemn the United States for recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital and then last month criticised the US for withholding tens of millions of dollars in funding for Palestinian refugees, many of whom live in Jordan.

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Nonetheless, Wednesday's memorandum of understanding will provide Jordan with $1.28bn in US aid annually until 2022 — $275 million more per year than the current level. The annual amount includes $750m in economic aid that will support Jordanian reform efforts and $350m in military assistance.

Both Mr Tillerson and Mr Al Safadi acknowledged the disagreements but said the end goal of both countries remains the same.

"We have different views on Jerusalem but we share a commitment to peace," Mr Al Safadi said.

"We have differences as any countries may have from time to time, over tactics I think more than final objectives," Mr Tillerson added. "I think our final objectives are quite clear and are shared and those are unchanged. We may take different approaches but we consult and we know that what we're trying to achieve at the end is still the same."

Jordan, a longtime partner of the US and one of only two Arab nations to have full diplomatic relations with Israel, plays an instrumental role in the region and in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Jordanian officials were disturbed by Mr Trump's Jerusalem announcement in December last year and said it could hurt efforts to forge a two-state solution to the conflict.

Mr Al Safadi said Jordan saw no alternative to a two-state solution and that his country looks forward to a peace proposal that the Trump administration has been preparing for release in the coming months.

Mr Tillerson meanwhile said the proposal was "fairly well advanced" but would not comment on when the administration might put it forward.

Wednesday's aid announcement represents something of a victory for Mr Tillerson and US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, both of whom argued against the Jerusalem decision and had lobbied to continue assistance to Jordan on national security grounds. Mr Trump and the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, have both spoken in favour of cutting aid to nations that do not back the administration's positions.

Greeting Mr Tillerson at his palace in Amman, Jordan's King Abdullah acknowledged the secretary's stance in the administration's decision. "Thank you, for I know that you played a very vital role," he said.

In the wake of the UN General Assembly vote on the administration's Jerusalem decision, Mr Trump and Ms Haley questioned whether aid to the Palestinians was worth the expense and whether the US should continue to assist countries that did not support the administration's position.

"Let them vote against us," Mr Trump said at the time. "We'll save a lot. We don't care. But this isn't like it used to be where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars. We're not going to be taken advantage of any longer."

In January, the administration withheld more than half of a $125m pledge to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides services to millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon.

Jordan hosts almost half of the roughly five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the region. As such, it will be hit hard by the cuts because it depends on UNRWA welfare, education and health services for these people and is coping with an economic downturn and rising unemployment.

Mr Tillerson said continued US funding for UNRWA would depend in part on whether other donors step up their contributions.