Al-Aqsa Mosque: How Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu can regain Jordan’s trust
After being shunned for years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was this week given a chance to visit and meet Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Senior US national security officials, as well as Emirati leaders and Egyptians, convinced the king that they were serious about pressuring Netanyahu this time. The big question that needs to be answered is, will Bibi, as he is known, be able to balance his commitments to King Abdullah with keeping his coalition intact? He and his sponsors have to show the king and the world that today’s Netanyahu will keep his promises.
The last time Netanyahu was in the royal palace in Amman was Nov. 13, 2014, and then, like now, the situation was very tense, especially in Jerusalem. Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry shepherded the meeting, which was aimed at solving the impasse at Islam’s third-holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, which Israelis refer to as the Temple Mount.
An official statement by the royal court on Tuesday said King Abdullah “stressed the importance of respecting the historical and legal status quo in Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif.” While the statement said that the king called for peace and security, the need for a return to the peace process and “an end to any measures that could undermine peace prospects,” the most important test of the new commitment will be the behavior of Israel concerning the Muslim holy site.
The 2014 understanding that was reached between the Jordanians, Israelis and Americans produced an agreement that “Al-Aqsa is for Muslims to pray and for all others to visit.” What was not publicized was the second half of that agreement regarding the details of Israeli visitors. The understanding noted that only small groups of Israelis should visit each day, that no repeat visitors would be allowed and that known Jewish extremists should not be allowed entry to the Muslim shrine at all.
What is needed is simply to go back to the entire understanding reached back in 2014
But Netanyahu’s commitment was never applied on the ground, as hundreds of Jewish visitors enter the compound every day via the only gate where the Jordanian-paid guard is not allowed to be present. Most of the visitors are repeat visitors and many of them are extremists who demand to pray on the holy Muslim site — and some do so in their own way. In fact, one Israeli writer has boasted that Jews have been praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque for the past five years. He was referring to silent prayers and the body movements accompanying them. No wonder King Abdullah had for years refused to take Netanyahu’s calls.
This time around, Netanyahu is in much worse shape than he was in 2014. He is surrounded by extremists who are pressing him to change the status quo at the site, which has been administered by Muslims for more than 13 centuries, except for the approximately 90 years that the crusaders ruled. Both Christians and Muslims have supported the fact that Jordan and the king’s Hashemite family are the custodians of the holy places in Jerusalem.
This week’s meeting was attended by Jordan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Director of the King’s Office Jafar Hassan and General Intelligence Department Director Maj. Gen. Ahmad Husni, while the Israeli delegation included senior political and intelligence officers, offering a sign of the high level of national security involved.
Jordan and other international leaders are also worried about a likely explosion in the settler population. They are concerned about the expectation that the present settler-dominated government is being asked to approve the dangerous “One Million Settlers” plan, which would definitely put an end to the empty plan for a two-state solution.
While Netanyahu no doubt promised the moon to the king, it is unlikely that anyone in the Jordanian palace, government or intelligence services will hang on to his promises this time around. What is needed to rebuild trust is simply to go back to the entire understanding reached back in 2014. If Netanyahu still means what he agreed to in the presence of Kerry, everyone will be able to see the results any day now. If large numbers of repeat Jewish visitors, known extremists among them, continue to make provocative visits to the Muslim site, it will be clear that they are not mere visitors but persons with political/religious intent.
One more move that Netanyahu could make would be to ask Jewish visitors to join those from the rest of the world in entering by the visitors’ gate at Bab Al-Silsila and to abide by the rules and regulations that the housekeepers of the Muslim site require of all visitors. The big test will come soon, with Ramadan and Passover overlapping in April.
- Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Twitter: @daoudkuttab