Twenty years after the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, the warmest, most stable agreement Israel has ever reached with an Arab country is facing one of its most daunting tests.
Jordan’s recall of its ambassador for “consultations” on Wednesday as an act of protest is liable to be only the first crack in the vital relations between the two states. The hints dropped by the Jordanian information minister about reviewing the clauses of the agreement, a possible prelude to a freeze in relations, ought to raise great concern because the sword is dangling not just over this agreement, but over the interlocking relationship between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians. Any deterioration in relations with Jordan could have an impact on the ties between Israel and Egypt.
Both countries have an interest in maintaining good relations. There is close security cooperation between Jordan and Israel and trade between the two countries also enables trade with other Arab countries. It is also the diplomatic and economic path that allows the Palestinians to export and import goods, offering some relief for the Palestinians’ economic hardship and extra quiet and security for Israel.
Although Jordan in 1988 declared it was disengaging from the West Bank, the crisis in relations brought about by the struggles over the Temple Mount in particular and East Jerusalem in general show the degree to which this disengagement was merely theoretical, and how events in the territories can have an immediate, dangerous impact on bilateral relations.
Jordan’s ambassador was not recalled on a whim. The move was coordinated with the United States, in talks held in Paris between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, and follows a long list of what Jordan says are Israeli efforts to Judaize all of Jerusalem and seize control of the holy sites on the Temple Mount. The formal explanation for Jordan’s move is derived from Israel’s obligation to consider Jordan’s preferred status with regard to the holy places, and coordinate any steps taken there with Amman.
The entrance of Israeli security forces on the Temple Mount, the frequent approval of new plans to build in East Jerusalem, Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s announced plan to move to Silwan, and the closing of the Temple Mount to worshippers twice in the past few days provoked public outrage in Jordan and sharp protests in the Jordanian parliament. Jordan, which feels threatened by the advance of the Islamic State, which is also resonating among Jordanian Islamist groups, is trying to walk between the lines of fire – between the increasingly strong Islamic groups and its national interest to maintain good relations with Israel.
Faced with domestic pressures, albeit not particularly new, Jordan’s King Abdullah doesn’t have too many options. In contrast to Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is illegal and has been declared a terror organization, the group is legal in Jordan, where it has considerable public support that is only being enhanced by the events in Jerusalem.
But the Temple Mount crisis is not just enraging Jordanian citizens. The kingdom is hosting nearly 1 million refugees, most of them Muslims, and is justifiably concerned that the riots on the Temple Mount will ignite the crowded alleys of the refugee camps, where there is great bitterness over the way the Jordanian government is treating them. A protest against Temple Mount developments might be considered legitimate, but is liable to sweep up anyone who has a complaint against the regime.
Ignoring Jordanian anger or trying to blame Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will not shield Israel from the diplomatic fallout from the Jordanian move if the Temple Mount continues to burn.
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