The past week was characterized by a virtual explosion of diplomatic tensions between Israel and its neighbors. Clearly, the hardest challenge was the crisis with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Back in 1994, when Israel and Jordan were quietly exploring the possibility of reaching a peace treaty between them, Israel made it clear that it did not see the Jordanian kingdom as a future Palestinian state, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding.
As a result of signing a peace treaty, it now formally recognized the borders of Jordan with Israel. These Israeli assurances undoubtedly helped set the stage for closing the deal between the two countries for a peace treaty.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fully understood these diplomatic intricacies but his government included a number of novices who took matters to the extreme. The most glaring of his senior coalition partners was his minister of finance, Bezalel Smotrich, who articulated positions that put him into direct conflict with Israel’s neighbors.
How did Bezalel Smotrich spark a diplomatic crisis with Jordan?
First, there was his declaration that “there is no such thing as Palestinians.” Yet in 1978, former prime minister Menachem Begin agreed to refer to the “representatives of the Palestinian people” in the Camp David Accords. Smotrich ignored Begin, calling the Palestinians “a fictitious people.”
If there was no such thing as Palestinians, then how did Begin formally adopt the language that he ultimately used?
Smotrich also used a map on the lectern that he featured on the stage during his speech in Paris. The image that he used was a map of all of Israel in dark blue along with the territory of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in one solid color.
What irritates the Jordanians especially is their concern that there is something problematic behind Smotrich’s choice of language. Are there Israelis seriously considering agreeing to a Palestinian state on Jordanian territory?
Frankly, there would be nothing more self-defeating for Israel than supporting the overthrow of the Hashemite throne and its replacement by a Hamas government, backed by Iran.
Indeed, Israel will need to explore the creation of a new regional security architecture designed to block and contain the spread of Iranian power through Iraq right up to Israel’s border with Jordan.
In the past, Tehran took an interest in improving its access to Iranian religious sites in southern Jordan, hoping to expand Shi’ite tourism there. The Iranians were looking to swap enhanced access for supplies of Iraqi energy. The Jordanians were reluctant to give Iran new positions in their kingdom.
The prospects of a Jordanian-Israeli diplomatic crisis could not come at a worse time. These relations need to be solidified, not weakened. If Israeli ministers cannot accept that reality, they need to be replaced. The most vital of Israel’s interests along its eastern front is at stake.
The writer served as the director-general of the Foreign Ministry and as an ambassador to the United Nations.