Behind the Scenes: How the Temple Mount Camera Deal Prevented a Serious Crisis With Jordan

Senior U.S. officials tell Haaretz that there had been rapid deterioration in Israel-Jordan ties since mid-September, nearly resulting in complete cutoff in relations.

Reuters

At a meeting Monday of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed some of the behind-the-scenes talks that sealed an understanding among Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians amid the ongoing violence. He stressed the deal to install cameras on the Temple Mount.

“The cameras will transmit to us and to the people at the Waqf,” Netanyahu told the committee, referring to the Muslim trust responsible for the day-to-day administration of the Temple Mount. “But I don’t rule out that ultimately it will be transmitted everywhere. We have nothing to hide and transparency there is good for us.”

Netanyahu said some of the cooperation with Sunni Arab countries had been halted due to tensions surrounding the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Mount, according to several Knesset members present at the committee meeting.

“There is an opportunity for cooperation with Arab countries, but [some of the cooperation] is being halted because of the situation at the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying.

“We are therefore trying to calm the tension on the Temple Mount The street in Arab countries is responding first of all to the religious question of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and only after that to the conflict with the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu also acknowledged that, contrary to hopes he has repeated in public in recent months, it will be impossible to achieve dramatic progress in relations with the Gulf states without progress on the peace process with the Palestinians.

“There are relations that are progressing with Sunni countries, but this won’t manage to break through the glass ceiling due to Palestinian refusal to enter into negotiations with us,” Netanyahu said.

MKs at the meeting said Netanyahu did not provide details on which countries were involved and which cooperation he was referring to. But senior U.S. officials told Haaretz that the Arab country whose relations with Israel suffered the worst due to the Temple Mount tensions was Jordan.

Marc Israel Sellem

The U.S. officials said that since the middle of September, when the tensions over the Mount erupted, there had been a rapid deterioration in ties between Israel and Jordan. At one point there was almost a complete cutoff in relations.

“There was a serious breakdown,” one senior U.S. official said. “They just were not talking.”

During the Knesset committee meeting, Netanyahu was asked about the tensions with Jordan by MK Michal Rozin (Meretz). Netanyahu seemed surprised by the question and provided a somewhat halting answer.

He acknowledged that “there had been a period of tension and a disconnect with Jordan,” but added that he did not want to provide details to the entire committee. “What’s important is that now there’s again cooperation,” he said.

The U.S. officials said a main goal of Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts in recent weeks was to restore normal relations between Israel and Jordan. During a four-hour meeting with Netanyahu in Berlin, Kerry made clear the extent to which the Jordanians were furious over the situation on the Temple Mount.

Jordan is one of Israel’s few allies in the region, Kerry told Netanyahu, and the prime minister must take steps as soon as possible to restore normal relations. In a telephone call with Jordan’s King Abdullah in recent weeks, Kerry urged the monarch to contact Netanyahu directly. The Israeli and Jordanian leaders were both told the time had come to speak to each other, a U.S. official said.

AP

Before the Kerry-Netanyahu meeting in Berlin, Kerry and his staff decided to aim for a diplomatic process that was as simple as possible.

The U.S. officials said they decided not to try to solve the problem of the status quo on the Temple Mount or to “reinvent the wheel.” Instead, they would find issues the two sides agreed on regarding the Mount and express them publicly. Second, they would restore channels of communication between Israel and Jordan, first of all over the Mount.

A senior U.S. official said the Americans began working on a statement on the status quo that would represent the understandings and agreements among the parties.

The text was based on a statement by the UN Security Council at the initiative of Jordan at the beginning of the crisis on September 18. The Jordanians and Palestinians agreed immediately, but the Americans were surprised that Israel also agreed to many of the provisions.

Reuters

The Americans wanted to balance the statement and find a text that would be acceptable to Israel. One of Kerry's advisers had seen an article that Israel's ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, had written for the Politico website in which he had tried to undermine Palestinian complaints directed at Israel over the Temple Mount. Israel accepted a status quo that limited prayer on the Temple Mount to Muslims and that only allowed Jews to visit the site, Dermer wrote. The Americans inserted this provision from the Politico article into the text of the statement.

Substantial progress in the U.S. efforts came at the Kerry-Netanyahu Berlin meeting, where Netanyahu surprised Kerry, telling him that in the past the Jordanians had proposed to Israel that cameras be installed on the Temple Mount to ensure that no damage was being done to the mosques, and no violations of the status quo.

Netanyahu told Kerry that he liked the idea and urged that it be pursued. The Israeli leader suggested that after the secretary’s meeting in Amman with King Abdullah, Kerry would announce Israel’s agreement, and credit would go to the king for the idea.

In the near future, teams from the Israel Police and the Waqf will meet to coordinate the issue of the installation of the cameras on the mount and to discuss reinforcing security arrangement to head off the entry of provocateurs from either side at the site. 

Kerry was very satisfied with the idea of installing the cameras and from his conversation with Netanyahu. At a press conference that followed a short time later in Berlin with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, he expressed cautious optimism. 

Reuters

After his meeting with Netanyahu, Kerry briefed the Jordanians and Palestinians and traveled to the Jordanian capital, Amman, last Saturday to settle the final details. Kerry also conducted marathon telephone conversations with the Israeli and Jordanian sides after leaving Amman for Saudi Arabia. The aim was to coordinate the statement issued by Netanyahu Saturday night and the Jordanian response to the statement. Kerry, who caught a cold on the trip, lost his voice at one point and his aides conducted some of the telephone conversations with Netanyahu and with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh to come to agreement on the text of the statements.

On Monday, Netanyahu told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that in the course of his talks with Kerry, there were no secret agreements with the Jordanians or the Americans regarding visits by Jews to the Temple Mount or regarding construction in West Bank Jewish settlements. The U.S. officials confirm this. The only subject on which Netanyahu made promises was a commitment at this point to bar visits by Israeli cabinet and Knesset members to the mount.

The senior American officials noted that Kerry did not raise such a demand. Netanyahu, they said, understood himself the extent to which visits by politicians such as Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel have been damaging and provocative. 

Netanyahu himself made reference to that on Monday before the Knesset committee. "I am not comfortable preventing my colleagues, cabinet ministers and Knesset members, from going onto the Temple Mount," he said, "but the price of a violation could be that we would all enter a major whirlwind and I am not prepared for that."