One of the top diplomatic priorities of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in over 10 months in office has been to improve Israel’s relations in the Middle East.
The aim has been to build on their predecessor’s crowning achievement, the Abraham Accords, by deepening relations with the countries involved – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco – but also to improve relations with the other Arab countries with which Israel has peace – Egypt and Jordan.
Most of those countries were on an overall positive trajectory with Israel before this government entered office, with the first three basking in the glory of the Abraham Accords, and Egypt and Israel increasing cooperation on natural gas.
Jordan, however, was more of a challenge, which the new government was eager to face head-on, with the palace of King Abdullah II turning into a must-visit spot for Bennett, Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Israel sold more water to Jordan, and Jerusalem and Amman advanced agreements in the areas of agriculture and energy.
Another opportunity in the region presented itself in recent months, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly seeking rapprochement with Israel and making a series of warm calls to President Isaac Herzog, leading to an official state visit in Ankara.
Both of those ostensibly improving relationships were put to the test as Palestinians began rioting on the Temple Mount in the past week and a half, leading Israeli police to enter the compound to try to restore quiet so that worshipers in Jerusalem’s Old City could continue to celebrate Ramadan and Passover peacefully.
THE RELATIONSHIP between Israel and Jordan hit a post-peace nadir just a few months before the new government entered office, when Prince Hussein bin Abdullah of Jordan had to cancel his plans to visit the Temple Mount because Israel would not allow him to bring his entire cohort of armed guards with him. In response, Jordan blocked then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from entering its airspace for a planned visit to the UAE, effectively stopping the trip.
That tit-for-tat came after a series of deteriorations in the relationship in recent years, with Abdullah often expressing grievances at Israeli policing on the Temple Mount.
In the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, Israel stated that it “respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.” The Wakf Islamic religious trust, instituted by Jordan after Israel’s War of Independence, is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the al-Aqsa Mosque. And for a Hashemite king who needs to keep a majority-Palestinian population happy, the custodianship of al-Aqsa is very important.
Jordan used that agreement to demand things like the removal of metal detectors from the site, installed after a terrorist attack in which Muslim Israelis murdered two Druze Israeli police officers. Though the peace agreement also says “there will be freedom of access to the places of religious and historical significance,” Jordan has demanded that high-profile Israelis not visit the site.
The irony of Jordan making demands of Israel regarding freedom of worship on the Temple Mount is that when Jordan controlled Jerusalem’s Old City in 1948-1967, Jews could not even visit the Western Wall, let alone Judaism’s holiest site. And the limits on Jewish visits and worship on the Temple Mount continue because of the Wakf.
Beyond Temple Mount issues, in 2020 King Abdullah did not allow Israel to continue to lease small areas of farmland from Jordan, as detailed in the peace agreement, seen as a sign of its further decline. Amman continues to block the extradition to the US of Ahlam Tamimi, a Jordanian TV star who gained her fame – or infamy – by being one of the masterminds of the 2001 suicide bombing in the Sbarro pizza parlor in downtown Jerusalem, in which 15 were killed and 122 wounded.
Yet, with the Bennett government’s top ministers visiting Abdullah and the series of agreements between the countries, things seemed to be on a better path in the past year. The two leaders even spoke earlier this month about “the importance of achieving calm in order to avoid any escalation in the Palestinian territories” as Ramadan and Passover coincide, according to a statement from the royal court. Herzog and Gantz visited days earlier to the same end.
Jordan and Israel disagree about the meaning of the status quo on the Temple Mount, a senior Israeli official said.
“Israel has no argument against Jordan being responsible for al-Aqsa, but Jordan sees it as being responsible for all 144 dunams of the mount,” the official said. “There is no agreement on that, and it will remain that way. We have to be careful; it’s sensitive.”
With the past week’s violence on the Temple Mount, Jordan seemed to have reverted to old patterns.
Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh said on Monday that he “praises every Palestinian and Jordanian Islamic Wakf worker who stands tall like a turret and those who throw rocks at the pro-Zionists who are defiling al-Aqsa Mosque while under the security of the Israeli occupation government.”
Khasawneh also repeated the false rumor that Israel plans to divide the Temple Mount, like the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, into separate spaces and hours for Jews and Muslims.
Abdullah spoke with other Arab leaders about “the need to cease all illegal and provocative Israeli measures in al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif,” and there is a sense in Jerusalem that Amman is pushing other Arab countries to respond more strongly.
Jordan called an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers for Thursday to discuss the situation, and the Jordanian Foreign Ministry summoned Israeli Chargé d’Affaires Sami Abu Janeb to the meeting, in which Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi gave him a letter demanding an “immediate stop to violations” on the Temple Mount.
Those last three actions were par for the course and not so different from the reactions of many other Arab and Muslim states with ties with Israel.
But for Jerusalem, the praise of violence against Israel crossed the line.
Jordan plays a double game with Israel, and is harsher in public than in private, the Israeli official said.
“I can accept this double game to a point, but it was crossed in Prime Minister Khasawneh’s speech,” he said. “This cannot be tolerated from a friendly state. We sent that message more aggressively than they are used to.
“Jordan has its own internal political issues, and everyone is very understanding and wants to see stability,” another senior diplomatic source said, “but there is also a limit. Inciting violence as their prime minister did is beyond that limit.”
That was the point at which Bennett decided to speak out against those who “blame Israel for the violence against us, those who encourage throwing rocks and violence against the citizens of the State of Israel.
“Israel is doing everything so that everyone can always celebrate their holidays safely – Jews, Muslims and Christians,” the premier said. “We expect everyone not to join the lies and certainly not to encourage violence against Jews.”
There is hope in Jerusalem that the relationship with Amman can be salvaged. Abdullah is viewed by Israeli officials as more of a moderating force, while Safadi is difficult. Officials in Jerusalem also view this week’s visit of US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr as having a chance to be helpful.
Still, for Israel, the onus is now on Jordan to “take a step back to bring calm.”
ERDOGAN MAY not be the official custodian of al-Aqsa, like Abdullah is, but he has made the mosque his pet cause, along with the Palestinians more broadly, in his time in office.
The Turkish president was especially venomous toward Israel for well over a decade, beginning with Operation Cast Lead, which enraged Erdogan because he had met with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert days before and felt he had been made to look like he supported it. Relations hit their lowest point after the 2009 Mavi Marmara incident, in which IDF commandos boarded a ship seeking to break the blockade on Gaza. In the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, nine armed activists from an organization affiliated with Erdogan were killed.
Since then, Erdogan’s rhetoric grew all the more scathing and vituperative, accusing Israel of murdering children. He continues to harbor Hamas terrorists in his country, and the tightly censored media in Turkey have promoted antisemitic articles and television programs.
But in the past couple of years, Erdogan started to reverse course and try to improve the relationship – though he always said he stands with the Palestinians. Herzog visited Ankara, and the Foreign Ministry has been proceeding with caution, taking small but positive steps.
On Sunday, Erdogan spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and said they “were having a sad Ramadan due to what happened in Palestine, especially in Jerusalem.
“I strongly condemn Israel’s interventions against the worshipers in al-Aqsa Mosque,” Erdogan tweeted. “Turkey is always on the side of Palestine. The events remind us of the necessity for all Palestinian groups to work toward unity and reconciliation.”
Then, Herzog and Erdogan spoke on Tuesday, and the Turkish president said that the violence on the Temple Mount was “caused by some Israeli radical groups” and the mosque was “raided by fanatical groups.” He expressed sadness at the deaths and injuries at the holy site and called not to allow “provocations and threats to the status and spirituality of al-Aqsa Mosque.”
On the one hand, in diplomatic-speak, saying someone “strongly condemns” is a big deal. On the other hand, in contrast with the way Erdogan usually spoke about Israel in the past decade, this is, well, diplomatic.
“In the past, every time something would happen, Erdogan wouldn’t call. He would release a sharp condemnation and even say antisemitic things in the media or on Twitter,” a senior diplomatic source said. “Now, we have something else. He wanted to speak with the president; he wanted a dialogue. This is a turning point.... It is 180 degrees different from what we had before.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, the president of interfaith group The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who has been involved in the recent Israel-Turkey rapprochement, called the violence on the Temple Mount the “first test” of the warming ties.
ONE THING that the responses from Turkey and from Jordan have in common is that both promoted the false narratives about the source of the violence on the Temple Mount.
“There is a rumor among the Palestinians that Israel is trying to replicate the model of the Tomb of the Patriarchs on the Temple Mount,” Lapid said, meaning dividing the area into a Jewish section and a Muslim section. “It’s not true, but it’s very strong on social media.”
In a briefing, Lapid cited a video spread on social media that looks like a Molotov cocktail was thrown into al-Aqsa Mosque, which is, in fact, a video that was reversed of someone throwing the explosive out of the mosque.
“There is a huge amount of fake news,” he stated.
“The Palestinians successfully promulgated the lie,” Schneier said, of a rumor that 30-40 settlers entered the mosque. “Not only the masses, but the leaders themselves bought into this lie.”
Herzog tried to dispel it in his conversation with Erdogan with some success, as did Israeli officials with other leaders in the region.
A senior Israeli official said he does not think that Arab leaders believe the Palestinian narrative in its entirety, but that they are worried about “a creeping change in the status quo” on the Temple Mount.
The US and Israel’s European allies know that the argument that Israel is making the situation worse is false, and have been helpful in countering it, the official said.•