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Jordan and Israel: Fraught and troubled times for the ‘best of frenemies’

Relations between Jordan and Israel were put to the test in the past fortnight, near to breaking point. Between the crisis over the Haram Al-Sharif and the shooting of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli security guard, who was attacked by one of them, it took intense diplomatic efforts to at least temporarily patch things up.

As I wrote here this week, in this most unpredictable region, two separate incidents became connected. The tragic shooting incident provided Israel with the necessary pretext to make concessions in the shape of removing the newly introduced security measures at the entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Nevertheless, the insensitivity with which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the return of the Israeli security guard was a painful rebuke for King Abdallah of Jordan.

Israel shares with Jordan not only its longest border, but also a web of common interests. Considering that about 60 percent of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, many of them refugees, it inherently constrains how close the Hashemite Kingdom’s cooperation with Israel can become.

Though the peace agreement between the countries was signed at the height of the Oslo Accord euphoria, even then most Palestinians felt that the late King Hussein was rushing into it and thereby undermining their bargaining power with the Israelis. They might not be too far off the mark, especially when the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 was followed by the first Netanyahu government. There has always been the fear among the Palestinians that having signed the agreement with Egypt and Jordan and having the military threat of Syria all but eliminated, there would be almost no incentive for Israel to show flexibility in negotiation with them.

The longer the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian process lingers, the deeper the resentment among Palestinians toward the cooperation between the Hashemite Kingdom and Israel. King Abdallah, somewhat unguarded in a conversation with a journalist, remarked that “in 2016, for the first time, we captured and killed 40 (Daesh) terrorists in two major incidents. Ninety-six percent of them were of Palestinian origin.” He connected this phenomenon directly to the lack of progress in affairs between the Israelis and the Palestinians: “So if we don’t move the Israeli-Palestinian process forward, that is a major recruiting [opportunity] for disenfranchised and frustrated people.”

Historically, for Jordan and Israel strategic and economic cooperation have been paramount. Israel regards stability in Jordan as essential to its own security and also in containing the growing discord in the West Bank. Intelligence cooperation between the two countries’ security establishments in order to contain extremism has become a matter of routine.

The two countries have always endured a tense relationship since they signed their 1994 peace treaty, but Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent provocative behavior is placing unreasonable demands on King Abdullah’s patience.

Yossi Mekelberg

Jordan is a fragile state due to its lack of natural resources, as well as the fact that almost one-third of the nine million people who live there are not Jordanian nationals, including 657,000 Syrian refugees. This puts immense pressure on its resources as support from the international community falls short. Not surprisingly, it has asked Israel not only for security and political support, but also to assist its economy with jobs and energy supply, for instance.

Commonality of interests cannot disguise tensions, as a consequence of Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians in the occupied territories and in the holy places in Jerusalem. This inevitably puts King Abdallah in a very precarious situation vis-a-vis his own population, whereby he is left with very little choice but to rigorously criticize Israel’s behavior to the extent of at least appearing to be rethinking relations with it.

The Netanyahu government behaves as if it is completely oblivious to the potential impact of its policies on its neighbor, and how it might harm Israel’s interests as a result. Twenty years ago, in his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu demonstrated recklessness in sanctioning the assassination of the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on Jordanian soil. When the Israeli agents were caught in this failed operation, Netanyahu was forced to accede to King Hussein’s demands to instantly provide the antidote to save Meshaal’s life and to release the leader of Hamas at the time, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, from an Israeli jail. Otherwise, the Jordanian king threatened to sever diplomatic relations.

Netanyahu, in the face of the gravity of the situation, agreed to these demands, but seems to have learned nothing from the experience. Consistently he embroils Israel in a lose-lose situation.

Netanyahu’s handling of the situation in the Haram Al-Sharif was driven by narrow political considerations, in complete disregard of the need to delicately defuse an extremely explosive situation. The hero’s welcome he bestowed on the returning Israeli security guard, in front of the rolling TV cameras, was a cheap PR stunt, pandering to his supporters. Whatever happened in the shooting in Amman, at least one person who was killed there, the landlord, was completely innocent. 

Netanyahu might have been within his rights to insist on bringing back the Israeli security guard, who Israel claims enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Nevertheless, turning it into a photo opportunity was provocative and offensive to the king of Jordan and the Jordanian people.

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.