The hefty price of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty
The long and convoluted history of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, which was signed almost 28 years ago, has seen many ups and downs, but the leaders of both countries have always sought to give the fragile and frigid peace a new lease of life.
In September 1997, the late King Hussein threatened then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would abolish the treaty unless Israel sent an antidote needed to save the life of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who was the victim of an attempt on his life by Mossad in the heart of Amman. Netanyahu relented.
Since then, relations between the two have passed through, and survived, numerous tests. The killing of seven Israeli schoolgirls by a Jordanian soldier in March 1997 in a border area forced King Hussein to visit Israel and apologize to the families of the bereaved. In 2014, an Israeli soldier killed a Jordanian judge in cold blood as he crossed the bridge into the West Bank. The killer was never prosecuted. And in 2017, an Israeli guard shot dead two Jordanians at the Israeli embassy compound in Amman. He was repatriated and never charged despite promises that he would be held accountable.
However, the real threat to peace between the two countries was always going to be the emerging dispute over custody of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem. Jordan relinquished claims to the West Bank in 1988 except for its responsibility toward what Muslims call Al-Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). Amman’s custodianship of the 144-dunum enclave in the heart of the old city dates back to long before the Israeli occupation of 1967. King Hussein and later King Abdullah made sure that this issue was a red line never to be crossed in bilateral ties.
Unlike the first Arab country that signed a peace treaty with Israel, Egypt, which has long since settled all territorial disputes with its neighbor — ending with the return of Taba in 1989 — for Jordan the final disengagement from the West Bank was incomplete. Under the 1994 treaty, Israel agreed to “respect the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.” That meant respecting the historical status quo under which the Jordanian Awqaf Ministry continues to administer the compound, provided that it allows visitors to have access under its supervision.
But while Muslims consider the compound and all it entails to be exclusively Muslim, as it has been for thousands of years, a rising element of Jewish extremists allege, with no archaeological proof, that Al-Haram Al-Sharif stands on the ruins of Solomon’s Temple. This claim became part of mainstream dogma as religious right-wing parties began to dominate the Israeli political stage. When Likud leader Ariel Sharon made his controversial visit to the compound in 2000, he triggered what became known as the Second Intifada. That breach became a watershed moment, ushering in more provocative “visits” to the compound. The issue became a festering wound in Jordan-Israel ties.
In the past few years, under Netanyahu governments, the provocations became more regular, causing several showdowns between King Abdullah and Netanyahu. Even then, Netanyahu never challenged the Jordanian custodianship directly, though he did permit members of his Cabinet to participate in unauthorized tours of the compound.
With last June’s arrival of Naftali Bennett, a right winger and supporter of Jewish settlers, Jordan, perhaps prematurely, believed that tensions over Al-Aqsa would recede. King Abdullah wanted to prevent a repeat of the May war between Israel and Hamas, which was partially triggered by assaults on the compound by settlers and religious groups during Ramadan. He had met with top Israeli officials last March in a bid to maintain calm. That did not happen.
Instead, Bennett has escalated and pushed for a temporal division of the compound, making daily visits by Jews a new reality. But on Sunday he made the starkest challenge to the Hashemite custodianship yet by stating that there will be no foreign interference in Israeli decisions concerning Jerusalem and the “Temple Mount.” This came despite repeated assurances by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid that Israel was still committed to respecting the historical status quo.
Bennett, whose coalition government could fall at any time, is appealing to the far right and religious voters. But his remarks put Jordan in a difficult position. Israel has been veering further to the right with every election cycle and it is only a matter of time before this government or a future one enforces a physical and temporal division of the mosque to appease extremist voters. How Jordan would react to such a move is now the most important question.
It is only a matter of time before this government or a future one enforces a physical and temporal division of Al-Aqsa.
With limited leverage over Israeli politics, Jordan’s options are limited and tough. A breakup with Israel would open a Pandora’s box for both countries and potentially usher in a religious war. There is a message here for other Arab countries looking to normalize ties with Israel, which is no longer the secular socialist state that was envisioned by David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Israel is turning into an entity ruled by far-right religious extremists who openly embrace and practice racism and rule over the longest occupation of modern times. As Jordan is now learning, the peace that it struck with Israel carries a hefty price; one that could have deep domestic repercussions.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010