As tempers flare in Jerusalem, Israel-Jordan relations hang in the balance
While facing increased Arab riots and terrorist attacks that resemble the underpinnings of a renewed Palestinian intifada (uprising), Israel is simultaneously working to manage tension in its delicate relationship with Jordan, one of its two peaceful Arab neighbors.
On Nov. 5, masked Arab rioters threw rocks and shot fireworks at Israeli security forces on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, forcing Israel to temporarily close the holy site to visitors and touching off a diplomatic spat between the Jewish state and Jordan.
Israel also temporarily closed the Temple Mount to all worshippers last week after an Arab man’s attempted assassination of activist Yehudah Glick, a promoter of Jewish access to the Temple Mount. The preventative move came against the backdrop of weeks of increased Muslim riots and assaults on Jewish residents, including the recent vehicular Palestinian terror attack on Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill light rail station that killed two people. After pressure from U.S. and Muslim leaders, the Israeli police decided to re-open the Temple Mount ahead of Muslim prayers on Oct. 31. Yet Nov. 5 saw another car-ramming attack by a Palestinian driver, this time at the Shimon Hatzadik light rail station in Jerusalem. The latest car attack killed an Israeli Druze border police superintendent and a 17-year-old yeshiva student.
Following the temporary closure on Nov. 5, Jordan threatened to undermine its relations with Israel by recalling its ambassador to the country over Israeli “violations” on the Temple Mount. Jordan and Egypt are the only Arab nations that have diplomatic relations with Israel.
After a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Judeh, accused Israel of “escalating the situation in Jerusalem” and “violations against the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” the Jordanian news agency Petra reported. Judeh added that Jordan would continue to counter “unilateral Israeli moves through diplomatic and legal means, especially using its vantage position as a member of the U.N. Security Council.”
Grant Rumley, a research analyst specializing in Palestinian politics and the Levant region for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.org that he believes Jordan’s calculations “are mostly the result of domestic pressure.”
“It’s harmful for the Jordanians to pull their minister from Israel, but it’s even worse for [Jordan’s] King Abdullah domestically if he doesn’t do anything,” Rumley said. “This, combined with a complaint to be filed at the Security Council, amount to symbolic gestures that are likely to appease the Jordanian public (a majority of whom do not support the country’s peace treaty with Israel) while still not severely damaging the strategic relationship with Israel.”
Despite fighting against each other in the 1948 War of Independence and 1967 Six Day War, Jordan and Israel have always maintained a relatively close relationship, which was finally formalized in 1994 with the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.
Today, both countries cooperate in several important areas, including security, the economy, and natural resources. Jordan in September signed a 15-year, $15 million natural gas deal with Israel that was hailed at the time as an “historic agreement.” As top allies of the U.S., Jordan and Israel also cooperate closely on intelligence sharing, especially amid the threat of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in nearby Iraq and Syria. Jordan and Israel have also set up joint industrial parks, including the Jordan Gateway, whose formation was announced in late 2013.
At the same time, Israel and Jordan maintain a unique arrangement in Jerusalem. According to the 1994 peace treaty, Jordan retains custodianship over the Muslim holy sites in eastern Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. But since the late 1990s, Israel has gradually allowed the Palestinian Authority to assert greater control over the site, which has caused some friction with Jordan and a gray area over control.
As part of the Jordan-Israel arrangement on the holy sites, Jews and non-Muslims are permitted to visit the Temple Mount, site of the First and Second Temples, on select days, but are not permitted to pray there. Yet there has been a push by some Israelis for greater Jewish sovereignty at the Temple Mount, including prayer rights.
Meanwhile, Muslim leaders, including in the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, have used the Temple Mount issue to incite protests and violence. Recent Palestinian news has been flooded with speeches, articles, and cartoons featuring calls by Palestinian Authority [PA] President Mahmoud Abbas to “defend” Al-Aqsa “in any way,” Palestinian Media Watch reported.
“This is our Sanctuary, our Al-Aqsa, and our Church [of the Holy Sepulchre]. They (Jews) have no right to enter it. They have no right to defile it. We must prevent them. Let us stand before them with chests bared to protect our holy places,” Abbas said.
For Jordan, the Temple Mount arrangement is just one of the critical issues facing the country.
“Jordan has about four major areas of concern these days: the threat of Islamic State, the economy, the crisis of handling Syrian refugees, and the tensions in Jerusalem,” Rumley told JNS.org.
“Now, for Abdullah, that’s probably exactly the order he’d list these issues in importance,” he said. “For the Jordanian public, it might be the other way around. These are sensitive issues, and Abdullah made a strategic calculation in keeping this spat with Israel at the diplomatic/rhetorical levels. There are too many benefits to the relationship with Israel in regards to the other categories for the king to seriously consider severing ties.”
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Paul Hirschson, meanwhile, was careful not to place too much blame on Jordan for recent unrest, instead focusing on PA incitement.
“We regret the Jordanian decision [to recall its ambassador], which doesn’t contribute to calming the situation,” Hirschson told JNS.org. “We would expect Jordan to condemn the violence, deliberately instigated from [PA headquarters in] Ramallah.”
Before the news of the recall of the Jordanian ambassador and the threat of diplomatic action in the U.N., reports indicated that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah met secretly in Amman on Nov. 1 to discuss the situation in Jerusalem and urge calm.
The two leaders spoke again over the phone on Nov. 6 about the importance of ending violence and incitement over the Temple Mount.
“We agreed that we’ll make every effort to calm the situation,” Netanyahu said after the phone call.
“I explained to him that we’re keeping the status quo on the Temple Mount and that this includes Jordan’s traditional role there, as consistent with the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel,” Netanyahu added, referring to claims in the Muslim world that Israel is seeking to change the status there.
Some Israeli lawmakers, however, feel that Israel is conceding sovereignty over Jerusalem and the holy sites.
“Israeli society needs to decide if it is willing to pay the price for maintaining sovereignty over the Temple Mount and the entire land,” said Member of Knesset Moshe Feiglin (Likud), who has been a leading advocate for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount and recently visited the site. “The weakness being shown in dealing with the Temple Mount reflects on the whole country.”
After the two vehicular terror attacks on Nov. 5, Netanyahu placed the blame on Palestinian incitement.
“This attack was the direct result of the incitement of Abbas and his Hamas partners,” Netanyahu said. “This front of hate wants to run over all of us. Peace will come when Abbas stops calling Jews ‘defilers’ and he stops embracing murderers.”
Last week, Abbas’s Fatah movement declared Oct. 31 to be a “day of rage” in Jerusalem, calling on Palestinian “fighters” to defend Al-Aqsa, while Hamas similarly called for further protests and violence.
While the tension continues to escalate, Rumley believes that the situation has not yet risen to the level of another Palestinian intifada.
“I think there are a lot of analysts out there eager to label this as an intifada,” he told JNS.org. “But intifadas have to have leadership at some point. The first started leaderless before local committees sprouted up. The second [Intifada] was top-down coordinated. So far, the situation in East Jerusalem is leaderless.”
“What we’re seeing instead is not so much local leadership as it is external groups attempting to steer the situation,” added Rumley. “Hamas calling for protests, Abbas calling for days of rage, etc. … Right now, these attacks and clashes appear to have a short shelf life, but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way in the future.”