My Word: Troubled waters between Israel and Jordan

Now is the time to bridge the differences, not rumble on the Allenby Bridge.

Protestors chanting slogans during a demonstration near the Israeli embassy in Amman, Jordan July 28, 2017.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protestors chanting slogans during a demonstration near the Israeli embassy in Amman, Jordan July 28, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On one – very superficial – level I was sorry that the planned showdown between maverick Likud MK Oren Hazan and Jordanian parliamentarian Yahya Mohammad Alsaud, who has a history of punch-throwing, did not take place. We all need a little light relief when times are tense.
Hazan turned back before reaching the Allenby Crossing between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom on Wednesday, citing the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Alsaud turned up and continued to call Hazan “a pig.”
At a deeper level, I’m pleased Netanyahu realized that the image of publicity-seeker Hazan dueling – verbally or otherwise – with a pugilistic member of the Jordanian parliament might cause people to snicker but is no laughing matter.
To a certain extent it is a photo by the prime minister hugging embassy security guard Ziv Moyal on his return/release from Jordan that contributed to the increasingly strained relations between the two countries. Moyal shot and killed a youth who attacked him with a screwdriver and accidentally killed another Jordanian at the same time.
As others have noted, this was not a security guard returning from an epic Entebbe-style episode or even the siege-like conditions around Israel’s embassy in Cairo in 2011. Assuming the guard acted correctly in view of the immediate threat he faced, he was a guy doing his job, acting in self-defense. The prime minister could have met with him, after the incident had been investigated, but exploiting the incident for a back-slapping photograph opportunity when the situation on Temple Mount was so explosive was ill-advised from a diplomatic viewpoint. It might have briefly improved his political standing, but there’s a big difference between being a politician and being a statesman – one that Netanyahu is usually aware of.
For better or, in my opinion, for worse, Jordan retains a unique status in Jerusalem. It funds the Wakf, the Islamic trust, that acts as the custodian for the mosques on the Temple Mount, Islam’s third holiest place, Judaism’s most holy site. Placing metal detectors at the entrances to the Temple Mount, as I wrote last week, is not outrageous; that three Arab-Israeli Muslims desecrated the site by killing two Israeli policemen there should not be tolerated. Abusing the sanctity of the mosques to hide weapons is an outrage.
Yet, Israel cannot ignore the sensitivity of the site particularly for the Hashemites, struggling to keep their power in a country where the majority of the population is Palestinian and where there has been a huge influx of more than a million refugees from Syria.
In “the good old days,” I crossed the Allenby Bridge on several occasions, often with delegations that met King Hussein in Amman. I still dine out on my memories from an iftar meal I spent with Israeli reporters and Knesset members (not perfect but better than Hazan) at the Royal Palace.
The Jordan River, unlike its reputation in spirituals, is not “muddy and wide.” It is a narrow waterway, impressive mainly because of its biblical connection and because most rivers, however small, are beautiful in hot climes. Nonetheless, the gap between the two sides today seems wider than it has been for a long time.
I covered the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan from the first public talks held in an air-conditioned tent in Ein Avrona, where it took me a minute to realize I could simply walk around the large conference table and interview the Jordanian participants sitting across from the Israelis. I was also among the journalists calling the event “historic” and feeling genuinely moved at the peace treaty signing ceremony in October 1994.
The first time I walked across the Allenby Bridge, looking down on the Jordan River, was a personal “small step for (wo)man, giant step for mankind” moment.
On one occasion I accompanied a group of Knesset members that hit an unexpected difficulty. The Jordanians did not want to allow the Israeli security detail to continue carrying weapons. It took several hours for the problem to be resolved. Ultimately, King Hussein issued a statement that he personally guaranteed the Israeli delegation’s safety. The king’s word was good enough to make us feel safe.
That feeling of security, guaranteed by the Hashemite monarch, no longer exists. King Abdullah II, Hussein’s son, cannot take even his own safety for granted.
Journalists covering the Amman embassy incident received a string of advice from Jordanian officials which included hiding their Israeli identity.
I remember the visit by King Hussein to offer condolences in person to the families of the seven Israeli schoolgirls killed by Jordanian soldier Ahmed Daqamseh at the Naharayim “Island of Peace” in 1997. The image of the king kneeling to talk to families sitting on the ground in a traditional custom of mourning was poignant and powerful. Daqamseh was released from prison in March after serving his 20-year sentence and received a hero’s welcome.
IN A Facebook Live video broadcast by Jordanian outlet Jfra News, Alsaud said, “Jordan has dignity and we either live in dignity or we die.”
Never underestimate the destructive potential of placing honor above all. As always, there is a need to find ways to strengthen the moderates: Those who want to live with dignity rather than die – or cause the deaths of others.
It’s hard to take Alsaud seriously, but he is helping create the noxious environment in which decent people are scared to speak out. Officials I met and interviewed at the time of the Jordan peace agreement are no longer willing for their names to appear in the Israeli press.
And that signifies a danger on both sides of the Jordan.
Similarly, Hazan has turned himself into a joke: Before the aborted showdown, he tweeted a photo of himself getting a haircut “preparing for the summit meeting with a representative of the Jordanian parliament. I come in peace.”
Amid the hype, Hazan’s more important message was lost. Alsaud ranted that “... the shoe of any Arab and Muslim is better than him [Hazan] and his rogue entity, which has no origin and no religion.” Hazan had something else to say, something that should be conveyed in a more serious way: “I wanted to talk to [Alsaud] and explain to him that, at the end of the day, Jordan is Palestine and Palestine is Jordan...”
In February, I reported on a talk to the Jerusalem Press Club by Hillel Frisch, a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA). He discussed what is often referred to as the “Jordanian option” – that instead of fixating on the creation of an independent Palestinian state, it would be better to expand the Palestinian links to the Hashemite Kingdom, with which the Palestinians share a language, religion and culture.
The problem is that I have yet to find a Jordanian, on- or off-record, who supports the idea.
There are increasing pressures by “anti-normalization” groups and Islamists in Jordan, but the monarch, and many of his decent, ordinary citizens, recognize the need to preserve the peace treaty with Israel for the sake of mutual security and prosperity.
Now is the time to bridge the differences, not rumble on the Allenby Bridge.
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