Israel-Jordan crisis emboldens anti-peace camp in kingdom

Jordan envoy returns to Amman as king faces criticism

A protester holds up a Jordanian national flag during a protest in Amman, Jordan June 4, 2018 (photo credit: MOHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)
A protester holds up a Jordanian national flag during a protest in Amman, Jordan June 4, 2018
(photo credit: MOHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)
Jordan’s decision to recall its ambassador to Israel in protest against the detention of two Jordanian citizens came in the context of the kingdom’s effort to fend off widespread criticism over its handling of the case.
The decision, announced on Tuesday by Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, is also another sign of mounting tensions between Jordan and Israel, 25 years after the two countries signed a “Treaty of Peace” in the Arava Valley.
The Jordanian ambassador, Ghassan al-Majali, arrived on Wednesday in Amman, where he is scheduled to hold consultations with senior government officials about the crisis with Israel.
The ambassador will not return to Israel unless the Jordanian citizens are released, Jordanian officials stressed, expressing hope that the Israeli government will “absorb the message” behind the decision to recall the top Jordanian diplomat.
The latest crisis erupted after Israeli authorities arrested Jordanian citizens Heba Labadi and Abdel Rahman Meri in August and September respectively, and placed them under six-month administrative detention.
Israel said that Labadi, who was arrested on August 20 when she arrived at the Allenby Bridge, is suspected of involvement in “serious security violations.” Unconfirmed reports have suggested that she is suspected of working for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group.
Meri was also arrested at the Allenby Bridge when he arrived from Jordan on September 2, but the nature of the charges against him have not been made public.
The arrest of Labadi and Meri has sparked a wave of protests in Jordan, where activists accused the Jordanian government of not doing enough to pressure Israel to release the detainees.
Labadi, according to her lawyers and family, has been on hunger strike for more than a month. Her incarceration and hunger strike, in addition to reports that she’s being held in harsh conditions in Israeli prison, have prompted several Jordanians and Palestinians to launch online campaigns calling for her release.
The campaigns are being held under the titles “Save Heba Labadi” and “Freedom for Labadi and Meri.”
Many social media users, however, have also seized the opportunity to lash out at the Jordanian government for failing to secure the release of the detainees.
“It is unreasonable and unacceptable that Jordan leave a helpless Jordanian female citizen in Israeli occupation prison,” a Jordanian social media user wrote to King Abdullah. “The government must do its utmost to release Heba and bring her back safely to Jordan.”
Other social media users posted photos of King Abdullah and his crown prince in military uniform during an army drill with sarcastic remarks such as: “The King and his Crown Prince on a mission to release Heba Labadi from the occupation prison.”
Jordanian government officials denied charges that they haven’t been doing enough to pressure Israel to release the detainees. In the past few weeks, Jordan has taken a number of steps in this regard, they said, noting that a representative of the Jordanian Embassy in Israel has visited Labadi and Meri several times. Moreover, Jordan has been working through diplomatic channels with Israel to end the crisis, the officials added.
An official from the Jordanian Embassy in Israel was scheduled to visit Labadi again on Wednesday in light of reports that her health condition has deteriorated as a result of the hunger strike.
King Abdullah, who returned to Amman on Wednesday from a visit to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, is scheduled to hold urgent consultations with his senior advisers on the crisis surrounding the detention of Labadi and Meri.
Sources in Amman said they did not rule out the possibility that the monarch would make a personal appeal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release the detainees.
“The king is in a difficult position,” said a prominent Jordanian journalist closely associated with the royal palace in Amman. “On the one hand, he’s facing pressure and criticism for failing to release Labadi and Meri. On the other hand, he’s trying to avert a further deterioration in relations between Jordan and Israel.”
The journalist and some Jordanian government officials criticized Israel’s handling of the crisis and warned that the continued detention of the two would cause more damage to relations between the two countries.
“It would have been easier for all had Israel banned them from entering the West Bank or deported them shortly after interrogating them,” said a government official in Amman. “Holding them under administrative detention was a bad idea. In addition, Labadi’s hunger strike and reports about her deteriorating health condition are adding fuel to the fire. The only people who benefit from this crisis are the enemies of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel.”
A Jordanian political analyst said that the actions of the Israeli government in the past few years have caused “serious damage” to relations between the two countries. Jordan, he added, is particularly worried about Israel’s actions and policies in Jerusalem, particularly the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) compound.
In August, the Jordanians summoned the Israeli ambassador in Amman to protest “Israeli violations and provocations” at the holy site. The move came after Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said in a radio interview that Jews should be permitted to pray at the Temple Mount.
The Jordanian king is apparently worried that Israel’s attempt to change the status quo at the holy site would undermine the Hashemites’ custodianship over Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. In the 1994 peace treaty, Israel commits to “respect the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.” In 2013, the Palestinian Authority also recognized Jordan’s role over the religious sites.
The assessment in Amman is that the current crisis with Israel will be resolved. That does not mean, however, that relations between Israel and Jordan will warm up any time in the near future. If anything, the latest crisis will further intensify anti-Israel sentiment in Jordan and solidify the “cold peace” between the two countries.