President Isaac Herzog walked into history this week as he strode, to the sound of honor guard bugles, down the red carpet laid out across Al Husseiniya Palace, in Amman, to meet King Abdullah II.
The two men, dressed in similar business suits, smiled and shook hands next to four Jordanian and Israeli flags, just as leaders of neighboring countries with capitals within driving distance might do with one another.
But for Jordan and Israel, which made peace in 1994, and which share Israel’s longest border, this was a milestone moment, marking the first public visit of an Israeli president with a Hashemite monarch.
It was a dramatic shift from the Israeli-Jordanian crises that marked the end of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure in office in 2021.
The low point was symbolized by Jordan’s decision not to renew a clause in the 1994 peace treaty by which it had granted Israel access to a tract of Jewish-owned land at Naharayim, also known as the Island of Peace, which the agreement had placed under Jordanian sovereignty. It also refused to continue to lease land to Israeli farmers at Tzofar.
The taking down of the Israeli flags for the last time and the clanging of the border gates in 2019 and 2020, respectively, seemed like a physical symbol of the frayed relationship in which Israel had once placed so much hope.
The situation deteriorated even further just a year ago in March 2021, when Israel’s refusal to allow Hashemite Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah to bring extra security guards with him on a Temple Mount visit caused him to cancel the trip. Jordan then blocked Netanyahu’s trip to the UAE, by failing to approve a fight plan over Jordan.
Israel retaliated by briefly closing its airspace to Jordan.
The public spats helped feed Muslim fears Israel was making changes to the status quo on the Temple Mount, known in Arabic as al-Haram, al-Sharif, which is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest site in Islam.
Crises with Jordan were just one of a myriad of missteps that stoked tensions in Jerusalem and ultimately helped lead to the outbreak of an 11-day Gaza war in May with accompanying ethnic Jewish-Arab violence within sovereign Israel.
THE PAST year has wrought a geopolitical sea change from Washington to Jerusalem, with US President Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump in the White House and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett succeeding Netanyahu.
Biden has had a hands-off approach to the Middle East. Trump traveled to Riyadh and Jerusalem within months of taking office, whereas Biden has yet to make it to the Middle East.
But Israeli leaders have held a dizzying array of meetings, including with the Jordanians. Some of it, of course, has to do with the installment of a new government, an act that, by its very nature, opens the door for a possible realignment of relationships, simply due to the protocol of new leaders needing to meet their diplomatic partners. With Jordan in particular, Israel has worked to improve ties by signing major water and trade agreements.
The Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration, by which Israel normalized ties with four Arab countries in 2020 – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – also expanded the scope of such meetings an Israeli prime minister could have in the Arab world.
This laid the groundwork for Israel to be more of a public regional player precisely at a time when a heightened Iranian threat gave moderate Arab countries added incentive to bond with the Jewish state.
The possibility of the revival of the dormant 2015 Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has also underscored the need for a united Middle East front.
Now that Bennett is almost a year into his tenure, the threat of an emboldened and nuclear Iran has helped highlight the success of his government’s diplomacy.
Last week Bennett held an unprecedented meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed at the Egyptian resort of Sharm e-Sheikh, in which he spent the night. It was Bennett’s second meeting with Sisi since taking office and the first such trilateral one to discuss Iran.
But that was not the end of the regional conversation. On Monday of this week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hosted the first-ever parley of four of his Arab counterparts in Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also participated in the event, known as the Negev Summit.
The small desert kibbutz was the home community and burial place of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and one of the country’s founding fathers.
The visit of Arab foreign ministers Sameh Shoukry of Egypt, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullatif Al Zayani of Bahrain and Nasser Bourita of Morocco to Ben-Gurion’s home was a reaffirmation of these countries’ recognition of Israel, with the Abraham Accords and the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Along with bilateral ties, Iran and regional defense issues were on the table.
The very public meeting, which included a photo with the six diplomats holding hands, was a public relations coup for Israel against Iran, which has fed off a strategy of showing Israel as an isolated force in the Middle East.
THE NEGEV SUMMIT came as Israel is facing an increased threat from Palestinian terrorists and domestic Arab terrorists, including those with links to ISIS.
Israel has for months been concerned that the overlapping festivals of Passover, Ramadan and Easter, in April, could, like last year, spark another Gaza war.
This week, Israel went on high alert, after three terrorist attacks, on March 22, 27 and 29, claimed 11 lives. It’s one of the highest terrorism-related death tolls since the Second Intifada, which ended in 2005, and security officials fear that there are more attacks to follow.
Arab leaders at the summit condemned the first two attacks that had occurred, both by Israeli-Arabs, and Jordan’s King Abdullah spoke against Tuesday’s attack by a Palestinian gunman.
The combination of those condemnations together with the face-to-face meetings gave the impression that Israel had Middle East allies, not just against Iran, but also against terrorism.
Jordan was invited to the Negev Summit but chose to stick with its prescheduled meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. The visual of those two meetings, one with six diplomats in the Negev, compared with King Abdullah and Abbas initially gave the mistaken impression that two opposite camps have been formed.
That image was overturned by the events of the next two days, in which King Abdullah hosted, in Amman, first Defense Minister Benny Gantz and then Herzog, to discuss, among other things, ways to prevent an outbreak of violence and to maintain calm on the Temple Mount.
Those meetings, coming after the Negev Summit, helped complete the image of a newly formed Arab unity with Israel, and that in this case, Jordan and Israel were working hand in hand to maintain calm.
The issue is, of course, personal for the Hashemite monarchy because Jordan has a large Palestinian population that reacts strongly to events in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Popular uproars against Israel in Jordan often threaten to destabilize the monarchy. Jordan also has a special custodial role with respect to the Temple Mount and al-Aksa compound there.
Still, this is the first time it has been this publicly involved in maintaining calm in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The intense dialogue between Israel and its Arab neighbors also highlighted the absence of a peace process with the Palestinians, a point that has been raised particularly by Egypt and Jordan and provided the beginning of a regional framework for such a process to occur.
The sudden rise of terrorism in the past week could mark the start of a third intifada. But it comes in a week, that could be an important milestone in Israel’s expanding normalization of ties with its neighbors. Israel might stand on the edge of another violent abyss, but it is no longer standing alone.
That could open the door to the very slim possibility of a very different outcome, in which regional pressure prevents both a third intifada and another Gaza war.