Jordanian King Abdullah warns of escalation and conflict over Jerusalem -analysis

Jordan’s warnings on the eve of Israel’s new government may be a preview of worse - or may be calculated to channel an existing narrative.

 Jordan's King Abdullah II addresses the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York City, US, September 20, 2022.  (photo credit: AMR ALFIKY/ REUTERS)
Jordan's King Abdullah II addresses the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York City, US, September 20, 2022.
(photo credit: AMR ALFIKY/ REUTERS)

Jordanian King Abdullah II warned on CNN of potential escalation and conflict due to concerns about tensions in Jerusalem, while Israel’s most right-wing government was sworn in.

In past conflicts, such as in May 2021 between Israel and Hamas, tensions in Jerusalem ostensibly led to the hostilities. In reality, there are many groups with an interest to create tensions over issues in Jerusalem, inflame the public over “threats” to al-Aqsa Mosque and then create a pretense for conflict.

A preview of worse to come?

Israel’s incoming government hands its adversaries a very easy lever over which one only has to push it a bit, and there can be a new “conflict.” Jordan’s warnings may be a preview of worse to come, or they may be calculated to channel an existing narrative, a kind of feedback loop of crisis.

This isn’t the first time the Kingdom of Jordan has expressed concerns, and it’s not even the first time the king has made sure to move quickly due to a new government coming to power.

In April 2017, Abdullah met with US president Donald Trump, just months after he came into office. Jordan was concerned about Trump’s pro-Israel policies and the chance that the US might make a surprise announcement, such as moving its embassy to Jerusalem. In the end, the US did move the embassy, and the king went to Turkey, where he and the Turkish leader warned Israel and the US about the embassy move.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan poses with Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a group photo during an extraordinary meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey, December 13, 2017 (credit: REUTERS/OSMAN ORSAL)Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan poses with Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a group photo during an extraordinary meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey, December 13, 2017 (credit: REUTERS/OSMAN ORSAL)

“If the wrong step is taken regarding Jerusalem’s status, it will be the cause of indignation in the Islamic world,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the time, claiming any move would “dynamite the ground for peace, igniting new tensions and clashes.”

The script of “something is happening in Jerusalem, and it will cause an explosion that will set fire to the whole region” is one of the classic threats and clichés that go back to the 1920s. The threat of “war” is always held up over issues in Jerusalem, where we are told the “holy sites” will provoke a huge conflict.

These statements are made in English to English-language media, and they play into a confirmation bias in the West in which the Middle East is seen as “age-old conflicts” that date back “millennia” and where religion supposedly guides everyone.

This Orientalist trope is thus exploited by some leaders in the region, regardless of whether violence could break out. They don’t have to play into this; they could calm tensions. Sometimes, entirely fictitious crises are invented regarding Jerusalem and the status quo. Are the concerns worse this time?

Those who are willing to use violence over a perceived transgression at a holy site generally are those who are given permission by their leaders to be violent. That means there is plenty of place for messaging of moderation and coexistence and encouraging people not to overreact.

But there are other voices, such as groups like Hamas, which want to create a crisis every year. For them, whether it is “metal detectors” in Jerusalem’s Old City, or a property dispute or “settlers storming al-Aqsa,” there is always something that can be used to create the tensions that are necessary.

Jordan’s king sounded the alarm on the eve of Israel’s new government coming to power. The timing was clear. The message is also clear: There could be a new round of violence or an “intifada.” There are “redlines.” But the kingdom also gave itself a way out, because Abdullah said that “if people want to get into a conflict with us, we’re quite prepared… I always like to believe that, let’s look at the glass half full, but we have certain redlines… And if people want to push those redlines, then we will deal with that.”

 KING ABDULLAH of Jordan with President Isaac Herzog.  (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO) KING ABDULLAH of Jordan with President Isaac Herzog. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

There is potential for cooperation

But Jordan can also work with the current government.

It’s clear that the Bennett-Lapid government, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, tried to improve relations with Jordan. These relations had been cold. In 2018, the kingdom chose not to renew two land annexes, which were 25-year leases.

There was also a crisis in 2017 after an altercation in which a security guard shot two Jordanians, and he returned to Israel along with diplomatic staff. There were also the arrests in 2021 during rumors of a coup. Then in 2021, Crown Prince Hussein Bin Abdullah canceled a visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Jordan claimed the trip was canceled to “prevent Israel from undermining his first such trip to the city’s holy sites,” Reuters reported. Then there were reports in March 2021 about a spat over flights.

Overall, the trend was clear: Relations were publicly bad, even if security issues and other types of relations continued.

Now comes the warning. This way, if something does happen, the kingdom can say it warned Israel. On the other hand, the kingdom can also use any tensions later to blame Israel, even to distract from the crisis at home.

Jordan has many issues at home, including fuel protests; it wants sympathy and support from the international community. It could be quietly saying, Support Jordan because Israel’s new government is causing tensions, and we are a key to stability.

The kingdom is already knee-deep in the problems faced by the Syrian regime in southern Syria, Iranian-backed militias involved in the drug trade and trafficking and Iranian groups in Iraq that can threaten Jordan.

In addition, weapon-smuggling attempts from Jordan into Israel continues to be a problem. The trade in illegal weapons in the West Bank is in the spotlight, and Israel has had frequent clashes with groups in Nablus and Jenin.

All of this points to eroding control by the Palestinian Authority. Jordan, which once controlled the West Bank and continued to play a role in Palestinian issues after 1967, is keenly aware of this.

Add to this another controversy: In a recent recording, the Associated Press said senior Palestinian official Hussein al-Sheikh allegedly was heard bashing PA President Mahmoud Abbas and security chief Majed Faraj. This adds to the uncertainty.

And now, with the incoming right-wing Israeli government, concerns about the status quo in Jerusalem, Jordan’s internal tensions and the breakdown in law and order in Jenin and Nablus, a lot could go wrong.

The question now is whether every incident that can be exploited, will be exploited to cause a cycle of endless crisis. There is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy here. Israel’s government is the most right-wing and religious in history, so it will be under scrutiny.

Adversaries, such as Iran, with its backing of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, will want to create a crisis. It remains to be seen if the kingdom will seek to turn down the rhetoric, or if it will keep the spotlight on Jerusalem and what affect this may have in coming months.