By Benjamin Schuetze

Abstract: Exploring what happens when trade routes stop, this recently published article with Geopolitics offers an empirically-grounded discussion of past attempts at Arab-Israeli normalization in Jordan. It focuses on efforts at promoting an Israeli-Jordanian transit trade route in the years following the onset of war in Syria (2011-2016) as alternative to the Syrian-Jordanian route that had up until then connected Europe and the Arab Gulf. It argues that such efforts are part of a deeply political project aimed at the selective integration of Israel, premised on the reinforcement of new and existing forms of containment. Discussing efforts at bypassing politics via means of infrastructure while insisting on how these obfuscate exclusion and repression, the article helps better understand the context in which the Hamas attacks of October 7 occurred, followed by Israel’s ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing, which the ICJ ruled to plausibly amount to genocide.

Past and ongoing attempts at Arab-Israeli normalization and peacebuilding don’t constitute a break with authoritarian practices of repression, exclusion and occupation. Instead, they are a continuation of colonial rule by new means. Infrastructure, while claiming to bypass politics and create opportunities for all, reinforces violent exclusion. Infrastructure stood out as a particular focus in most recent efforts at Arab-Israeli normalization, with the Trump administration’s stillborn so-called Peace to Prosperity ‘peace plan’ envisioning a whole range of ‘first-rate infrastructure solutions.’ Similar ‘infrastructural solutions’ are also at the core of the ongoing Israeli campaign of ethnic cleansing in Gaza, as demonstrated by the construction of a fortified highway, cutting Gaza into two, in order to facilitate Israeli control. In my article from Geopolitics, titled “‘Seizing the Moment’: Arab-Israeli normalization, infrastructure as a means to bypass politics and the promotion of an Israeli-Jordanian transit trade-route,” I argue that infrastructure lends itself particularly well to the pursuit of deeply controversial projects, as it reinforces pre-existing and creates new forms of containment behind a façade of connectivity. I demonstrate that, in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, infrastructural interventions intersect with and intensify processes that undermine the futurity of Palestine.

In the article, I argue that infrastructure’s efficacy as a means for the normalisation of Arab-Israeli relations in the face of Israel’s normalised occupation of Palestine can be better understood by thinking along infrastructure’s inherent duality. Infrastructure is such an efficient means for the seemingly apolitical pursuit of deeply political objectives, as it stores within itself notions of technocratic inevitability and abstract desires and fantasies. It produces, enables, and promises connections and creates violent forms of containment and isolation. It simultaneously triggers processes of territorialisation and deterritorialisation.

Infrastructure is the means via which a seemingly contradictory Israeli policy of isolation (from most Middle Eastern countries) and connection (with Europe and the Arab Gulf) is pursued. Both the construction and the targeting of infrastructure are central features of Israel’s ongoing occupation regime. By highlighting attempts at establishing an Israeli-Jordanian transit trade route, the article investigates how infrastructure recasts spatial relations via the simultaneous creation of selective mobilities and separations. The growing centrality of infrastructure in past attempts at Arab-Israeli normalization marked a shift away from peace as a key concern of the latter, moving towards selective economic collaboration and continuous violent repression.

Analyzing critical infrastructure literature, I identify what I call infrastructure’s three dualities: A spatial duality of territorialization vs. de-territorialization; a temporal duality of abstract promises about future connectivity vs. present forms of violent containment; and a material duality of technical materiality vs. aesthetic immateriality. Together, they open up new possibilities for the pursuit of deeply political projects behind a technocratic façade. Analysing contemporary infrastructure projects via a focus on infrastructure’s dualities helps us better understand both the potency and the limitations of infrastructural politics as a means for Arab-Israeli normalization. By focusing on infrastructure, attempts at Arab-Israeli normalization not only seek to technocratize deeply uneven power relations, but also perpetuate these behind a language of connectivity that promises unlimited potentials, while efficiently hiding the ways in which the latter are not only highly selective, but also premised on containment and violence.

The onset of war in Syria in 2011 not only brought death and destruction to hundreds of thousands of Syrians, but also interrupted the overland trade route between Europe and the Arab Gulf, which had previously been frequented by hundreds of trucks a day. While an alternative route from Mersin and Iskenderun in southeast Turkey to Ḍubā Port in Saudi Arabia via the Suez Canal had been established by 2013, this was of no help to the Jordanian trucking sector, nor to Jordanian agricultural exporters, who were bereft of access to the European market. Against this backdrop, three NGOs from Europe, Israel, and Jordan developed the idea of establishing an Israeli-Jordanian transit trade route via ship from southeast Turkey to Haifa in Israel, and then via truck to Jordan, at last onwards to Saudi-Arabia. Once fully operational, the organizers deemed the new route to help build a viable future for the fragile Jordanian export industry, to deepen Arab-Israeli relations, and to contribute to regional peace and political liberalization.

Presenting war in Syria as a development opportunity, the deeply controversial project of normalizing Arab-Israeli relations was framed in a language of inevitability and economic necessity. The choice of the project’s title, ‘Seizing the Moment,’ is illustrative in this regard. It invokes a sense of urgency, which dismisses any concern with past and present injustices under the pretext of having to realize the importance of the moment, to enable new connectivities in the future. By framing the project through modernization theory, the coordinators were able to present the promotion of free trade with Israel as part and parcel of a wholesale project aimed at the modernization of Jordan. Conversely, political concerns with growing Israeli-Jordanian trade ceased to be mere opposition to closer economic links with Israel, instead emerging as an important obstacle in the way of Jordan’s modernity. The project thus constituted a platform via which Jordanians were slotted into an imagined temporal duality of tradition vs. modernity. In order to be able to focus on a number of seeming technicalities that would supposedly help Jordan arrive in the latter, the main task for the organizers was to hide, ignore, and/or overcome the deeply political nature of the project. In the case of the involved European NGO, which also has an office in Amman, this meant the exclusion from the project of all its Jordanian employees, many of whom had expressed reservations over it.

While some participants indeed viewed it from a purely technical perspective, for others its appeal lay much less in the hoped-for material effects than in how the envisaged trade route represented the possibility of being modern. Fully in line with typical development discourse, the hopes and expectations of some of the co-organizers went far beyond technical concerns and matters of economic growth. While one co-organizer remarked that ‘hopefully this workshop contributes to the benefit of the peace process and a Palestinian state,’ another emphasized that the ‘real vision [of the project] is not just trade, but good neighbouring relations’ and ‘more interactivity and dependence in a right way.’ In the kind of flowery language that is so characteristic of development discourse, the previously quoted co-organizer outlined in more detail her vision of what an Israeli-Jordanian transit trade route was supposed to lead to:

‘I’m looking for the future. I’m a dreamer. I’m looking for pilgrimage to come to Haifa and then to the Holy Land and to Mecca. […] We need a comprehensive peace. […] I’m sure some in Israel and Jordan don’t believe in it and think [the] project will come one day after stabilization in Syria.’

The organizers effectively reframed Israeli security concerns as a problem of technical challenges. Saudi Arabia’s decision to refuse goods that had previously transited through Israel was presented as either a problem of technicality – relating to the price of document replacement in the Zarqāʾ Free Zone – or as a problem of lacking international support and insufficient diplomatic pressure. The project thus revealed itself above all else as an attempt at further regional economic integration of Israel, while simultaneously consolidating the occupation of Palestine. A Jordanian participant provided perhaps the most striking illustration for the Eurocentric historical amnesia that the project was premised on: ‘In [the] EU they bypassed history and were able to forgive and forget. They thought big. […] We need to start thinking like the Europeans did. […] We need to have the ability to forgive and forget.’

Finally, infrastructure has become a key driving force for geopolitical realignments, and for the ongoing erosion of Arab rejection of peace, recognition of, and negotiations with Israel. While promising greater interconnectivity and opportunities for all, infrastructure projects – whether realized or stuck in the planning stage – divide the region into seemingly civilized, developed, interconnected, and ‘forward-looking’ spaces on the one hand, and unconnected, ‘backward,’ and brutally contained, repressed spaces on the other.

Article or Event Link
Mar 5, 2024
Public Policy


Public Policy

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