The Jekyll & Hyde Israel-Jordan Relationship

Despite ups and downs, at the political level the two nations share "bon voisinage," or good neighborliness

By CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE
June 19, 2018 17:26
Jordan's King Abdullah II (R) greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Jordan's King Abdullah II (R) greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010. (photo credit: JASON REED/REUTERS)

 
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unannounced visit to Amman on Monday for a meeting with King Abdullah II, with the two leaders discussing “regional developments, advancing the peace process, and bilateral relations,” according to a statement released by the Israeli leader's office.

The trip comes as top White House envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt are set to arrive in the region, a tour that will take them to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar, as well as Jerusalem and the Hashemite Kingdom. The American officials are expected to discuss when to present an 18-months-in-the-making Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, as well as seek ideas on how to solve the crisis in the Gaza Strip.

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In this respect, a spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas already poured cold water on the Trump administration’s highly-anticipated peace proposal, describing the initiative as a “waste of time” that is “bound to fail.” Senior Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rudeineh likewise rejected Washington's plan to rehabilitate Gaza, claiming that the move to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the Palestinian enclave is guided not by humanitarian concern but, rather, geared towards creating a larger rift between the Hamas-ruled territory and the Abbas-ruled West Bank.

Perhaps more acute, then, are developments in Syria, where pro-Assad regime forces are in the initial stages of what is expected to be a major offensive to retake rebel-held areas adjacent to both the Israeli and Jordanian borders. To this end, Amman is party to a ceasefire agreement devised last year in conjunction with the United States and Russia that created so-called "de-escalation" areas in southwest Syria. Although there has since been little fighting in the effective buffer zones, the Assad regime, emboldened by its recent consolidation of control over Damascus, now aims to re-assert military dominance along the frontiers.

Complicating matters even more is an Israeli demand that Iranian-backed troops, including members of Tehran’s Lebanon-based terror proxy Hezbollah, not only be barred from participating in the Syrian army-led assault, but also be evicted from the regions that come under Assad's renewed grip. Jerusalem reportedly formalized an understanding to that effect with Russia, the major player in the Syrian arena since intervening militarily in the conflict in 2015. Nevertheless, there have been multiple allegations of Iranian-supported fighters camouflaging themselves as regime soldiers in order to join the offensive and, in turn, entrench their positions in the no-go zones.

Notably, Amman has started taking a harder line on Shiite Iran, having last week recalled its envoy from Tehran. This coincides with a warming of ties with Sunni Gulf countries that view the Islamic Republic's regional adventurism and potential nuclearization as an existential threat. This month, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE pledged $2.5 million to the Hashemite Kingdom in a bid to stabilize its faltering economy.

Overall, then, there is a confluence of numerous interests between Israel and Jordan, whose relations nevertheless appear, at least publicly, perpetually strained.

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The most recent flare-up occurred over Jordan's vehement condemnation of US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and the resulting relocation of the American Embassy to the holy city. Even before, Israel-Jordan ties reached a nadir after a security guard shot dead two Jordanians at the Israeli Embassy compound in Amman. The episode occurred in July 2017, when teenager Mohammed Al-Jawawdeh attempted to stab Israeli Ziv Moyal, who opened fire in response, killing both the attacker and the building’s owner in the crossfire.

The incident sparked a major diplomatic row, which intensified when Prime Minister Netanyahu appeared to “fete” Moyal upon his return to Israel—a move described by King Abdullah as “unacceptable and provocative.” To mend ties with Jordan, the Israeli government “expressed regret” for the loss of life at the mission; agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims; and acceded to a Jordanian demand to replace then-ambassador Einat Schlein. Israel's new envoy, Amir Weissbrod, was only permitted to take up the vacant post this past April.

That confrontation occurred amid already heightened tensions surrounding the Temple Mount—known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, atop which sits the Al-Aksa mosque—caused by Israel’s introduction at the Islamic site of additional security measures, including the installation of metal detectors, in the wake of a deadly terror attack. Jordan, the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, reacted with fury, in no small part contributing to the ensuing mass protests that caused Israel to reverse its decision.

While Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement in 1994, much of the Jordanian population remains hostile towards the Jewish state, as evidenced by poll after poll and, more tangibly, the widespread public protests that erupted following Jawawdeh’s death. Many Jordanians, including a significant portion of the political establishment, advocated for the total severing of ties with Jerusalem unless Moyal was tried and convicted for his actions.

"In general, Jordanians consider Israel an enemy. This is seen in the media, among politicians, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.," according to Dr. Abdullah Swalha, Director of the Amman-based Center for Israel Studies, which aims to provide Jordanians with objective information about Israel with a view to bridging the gap between the two nations.

"When it comes to regular people on the ground," he suggested to The Media Line, "there is little information about how they feel. Also, if you ask citizens very specific questions, such as whether Jordan should accept Israeli gas or about the joint water projects, they respond more positively. It is important to focus on the entire picture and not just what is happening in Gaza or with the al-Aksa mosque."

Ambassador Alan Baker, a former deputy director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs who took part in the negotiating process that culminated in the treaty with Jordan, believes that despite the ups and downs, Jerusalem and Amman enjoy bon voisinage, or good neighborliness. "This is a proper relationship in a state of peace, one that is mutually beneficial," he told The Media Line. "Albeit, Israel has a problem. The majority of Jordan's population is Palestinian, thus [King Abdullah] has to take into account their interests.

"The Israeli leadership understands this pressure, [as well as the fact that Jordan] toes the line of Arab states. It is accepted in Israel that in the event of an incident that creates discontent among Jordanians the monarchy must voice [opposition]. That there are diplomatic ties to begin with, along with a personal relationship between the leaders, allows this to occur."

In fact, in the opinion of many, the survival of Abdullah's regime depends heavily on implied Israeli and, to a greater degree, overt American political, economic and military support, without which a restive Palestinian population, coupled with a strong contingent of Islamic nationalists, might rise up against King Abdullah's rule. Additionally, the Jordanian army would unlikely be able to defend its eastern borders with both Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and Amman would be totally incapable of attending to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

As such, Israel and Jordan have a sort of Jekyll and Hyde relationship, not unlike Jerusalem's under-the-radar relations with other Arab-Islamic countries. While the dynamic is not one of "love thy neighbor," both sides appear content that it is nonetheless stable enough to persist for the time being.

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