The limits of Jordan’s diplomatic leverage over Israel
Efforts by Jordan to convince the Israeli leadership to avoid escalations in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank appear to have hit a wall. Since the beginning of March, King Abdullah has been calling on visiting Israeli officials not to provoke the Palestinians, especially at Al-Aqsa Mosque and in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. In the past few weeks, he has met in Amman, on separate occasions, with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and, most recently, President Isaac Herzog. On Sunday, he received a call from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
In all these meetings and calls, the king underlined the need to achieve a state of calm during Ramadan, which also coincides with Jewish celebrations of Passover, in order to avoid a repetition of last May’s showdown between Hamas and Israel, in addition to an outbreak of violence in the West Bank. Lapid and Gantz appear to agree and the latter talked about making positive gestures to the Palestinians during Ramadan. The king visited Ramallah last week and made similar appeals in a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
But things began getting out of control when Palestinians carried out a number of attacks inside Israel that killed a total of 11 Israelis. Two of these attacks were attributed to Daesh in an intriguing precedent. In retaliation, Israeli security forces carried out a number of arrests in the West Bank and apparently shot three Palestinian youths in cold blood on the outskirts of Jenin.
Earlier last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on the Palestinians, as well as Israel, to avoid provocations during Ramadan. But while the Israeli security clampdown may be put in context as a reaction to the spate of attacks inside Israel, it is naive to believe that the blame for the recent escalation can be put squarely on the Palestinians.
A day after Herzog made a historic visit to Amman — the first official trip by an Israeli president since the signing of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty — far-right Israeli MK Itamar Ben-Gvir breached Al-Haram Al-Sharif under police protection and made provocative statements. He called the Jordanian Waqf authorities that administer the Muslim site “terrorists” and said that “whoever controls the Temple Mount controls the Land of Israel. The enemy understands this too.”
Ben-Gvir is the firebrand racist politician who recently triggered violent clashes in Sheikh Jarrah. He has led incursions into Al-Haram Al-Sharif numerous times this year. In fact, Israel has ignored Jordanian denunciations of the almost-daily incursions by radical Jews.
On the same day that Bennett called King Abdullah, his coalition partner Lapid made a provocative visit to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City accompanied by police, who later clashed with Palestinians. It was the second day of Ramadan in the Occupied Territories and the atmosphere was already inflamed. Lapid, a centrist politician, also visited Amman a month earlier to discuss with the king how to calm the situation.
Since Bennett formed his coalition government last June, and despite a marked improvement in Jordan-Israeli ties — in contrast to years of tension under Benyamin Netanyahu — Israeli officials have done little to prevent radical Jewish groups from breaching Al-Haram Al-Sharif in clear violation of the status quo agreement between Jordan and Israel and their peace treaty.
Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, Jordan and, to some extent, Egypt have become the only Arab countries with ties to Israel who defend the two-state solution as the only recipe for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and who try to put pressure on Israel to stop its unilateral actions in the Occupied Territories.
But it is Jordan’s diplomacy that bears the brunt of championing the Palestinian cause in world arenas, and for good reason too. Jordan’s ties to the West Bank and Jerusalem are unique. It is in Jordan’s top national security interest that a two-state solution be fulfilled. This solution must resolve the issue of Palestine refugees, end the “Jordan is Palestine” myth that is spread by the Israeli far right, which wants to annex the West Bank and drive the Palestinians into Jordan, and protect the Hashemite role as custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites.
But growing Palestinian anger and frustration is not without good reason. Since the Bennett government was sworn in, the number of mob attacks by radical Jewish settlers against Palestinians has increased exponentially, resulting in injuries and even deaths, not to mention the burning of cars and houses and the uprooting of hundreds of trees. The situation has been simmering for months and it is not surprising that violence has finally broken out.
Israeli officials have done little to prevent radical Jewish groups from breaching Al-Haram Al-Sharif.
The reality is that assurances made by Israeli officials to Jordan are mostly empty and false. Israeli coalition governments have many heads and, even if one official gives his word, another would soon break it. In the case of Lapid, he could not wait to break his own word to Amman. Provoking the Palestinians is a sure way to make cheap gains in public opinion polls in a country that is veering dangerously to the far right, while Lapid is eyeing his turn as premier next year. Against such a backdrop, the fact is that Jordan’s diplomacy has limits when it comes to applying leverage over Israel and, amid America’s indifference to the conflict, Amman finds itself in a lonely place.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010