Netanyahu comeback is Jordan’s worst nightmare
The 28-year-old peace between Jordan and Israel has been anything but normal. The two countries share a checkered history, having fought three wars since 1948 before finally signing a peace treaty in 1994; one that the majority of Jordanians still reject. But throughout the “frigid” peace between the two neighboring countries, at least at the public level, one man stood behind a series of diplomatic crises that erupted between the two over the past two and a half decades: Benjamin Netanyahu.
Less than a year into his first term as Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu sanctioned what turned out to be a botched attempt on the life of Khalid Mishal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, in the heart of Amman in 1997. King Hussein threatened to suspend the peace treaty with Israel unless Netanyahu supplied the antidote for the poison Mossad agents had injected Mishal with. He relented and Mishal survived. But that incident tainted ties between Netanyahu and King Hussein.
The young King Abdullah, who took over after Hussein’s death in 1999, shared his father’s suspicions of Netanyahu and the two men sparred numerous times over the years until the Israeli leader’s fall from grace in June 2021, having become the longest-serving premier in the history of the state. Whether over Jordan’s custody of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the subsequent incursions onto the holy site by Jewish extremists; the setting up of electronic gates at the entrances to the mosque’s complex; the confiscation of houses in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah; the killing of two Jordanians by an Israeli guard at the Israeli embassy compound in Amman; obstructing an unprecedented visit by Jordan’s crown prince to Al-Haram Al-Sharif; or the threat to annex the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu became the king’s gadfly, casting a dark shadow over bilateral ties.
So, when a motley coalition of centrist, right-wing and Arab parties took over in Israel last year, Jordan was relieved. Not that Naftali Bennett was a moderate or had supported the two-state solution — he didn’t. But because anyone was a better choice than Netanyahu, who Jordanians believe has a grudge against Jordan and the king personally. Bennett and caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid were quick to visit Amman and restore a semblance of normality to bilateral relations. King Abdullah invited Israeli President Isaac Herzog for an official state visit to Jordan in the summer.
Even though Netanyahu’s successors continued to allow Jewish extremists to breach Al-Aqsa, the thinking in Amman was that neither Bennett nor Lapid would go as far as to officially end Jordan’s role over the Muslim site. Both men had to appease the far right, which was gaining force with every election cycle. Amman did not like it, but it understood the delicate situation the two beleaguered leaders found themselves in. No one wanted Netanyahu to return.
And then, after four inconclusive Knesset elections since 2019, last week Israel witnessed a political earthquake. Netanyahu, who is under trial on graft charges, was able to hammer together a lethal alliance of far-right and religious-right parties to join his Likud group in contesting and winning a fifth election. This time around, he beat all polls and emerged as the winner with 64 seats, out of 120, to his name — a comfortable majority that will enable him to form the next government.
With two firebrand far-right ultranationalist politicians — Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich — backing him, Netanyahu is slated to rule over the most extreme government in the history of Israel. Labeled as fascists and racists by the Israeli media, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are believed to be the real winners of the election, having been on the fringes of Israeli politics for years.
Having to deal with Netanyahu is one thing, but confronting two openly belligerent politicians whose position on Al-Aqsa, which Israel calls Temple Mount, does not exclude taking over the site and even leveling the Muslim shrine, is another. The new far-right government’s policies will also challenge Jordan on other issues, such as East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, the UN Relief and Works Agency, West Bank annexation, and even the mass transfer of Palestinians.
Unlike other Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel, Jordan has a unique relationship with West Bank Palestinians, not to mention that it is home to more than 2 million Palestinian refugees.
His legacy, as he searches for one, could be to end Jordan’s role at Al-Aqsa and allow for the physical division of the holy site.
Even if Netanyahu decides to dump his fanatical allies for a more centrist coalition in order to gain international acceptance, which is highly unlikely, his comeback at the helm is enough to keep Jordan guessing. His legacy, as he searches for one, could be to end Jordan’s role at Al-Aqsa and allow for the physical division of the holy site. His move to annex the Jordan Valley, thus isolating the West Bank physically from Jordan, is also not far-fetched.
Jordan has not commented publicly on Netanyahu’s victory and is probably waiting to see what kind of government he puts together. Ironically, a far-right one may end up serving Jordan more than an alliance with the center right. A government with openly racist ministers will trigger international outrage and might even put pressure on signatories to the Abraham Accords. In all cases, aside from the Palestinians, Jordan is preparing for the worst as Netanyahu, a long-time nemesis, prepares for a triumphant return. Its options in dealing with him are limited.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010