Opinion |

Trump Is Playing With Fire at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque

Fueled by Trump's peace plan, rumors are running rife that Saudi Arabia is muscling in on Jordan's control of Islam's third holiest shrine. The repercussions of interfering with a status quo that's lasted a century could be explosive

Victor Kattan
Victor Kattan
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Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump, at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump, at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019Credit: \ HANDOUT/ REUTERS
Victor Kattan
Victor Kattan

Rumors have run rife in the Arab and Israeli press that Saudi Arabia is seeking to displace Jordan as the sole custodian or "protector" of Jerusalem's al-Haram ash-Sharif compound, in which the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque is situated.

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Those rumors are allegedly causing much anxiety in Amman. Those concerns are unlikely to have been laid to rest by a speech given this week to the United Nations Security Council by U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mideast mediator, Jason Greenblatt, who talked up the potential for "creative solutions [to Jerusalem’s status] that attempt to respect all three religions that cherish this incredible city."

Those rumors should also be a cause of anxiety on Balfour Street, given Saudi Arabia’s well documented record of support for international terrorism.

But given the warm ties between Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East peace negotiator, and Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, such a reconfiguration can't be ruled out – at least, until we see the actual details of the much-heralded and delayed "deal of the century."

Although King Abdullah II of Jordan should be vigilant about the sources of these rumors, he should not be overly concerned. Neither Saudi Arabia, nor Israel, nor any other Arab country can supplant - without Jordan's consent - the special role that the Hashemite Kings have held in Jerusalem since 1924.

Jordanian King Abdullah II meeting with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the capital Amman. July 24, 2019Credit: AFP

Any Kushner and MBS agreement between themselves to recognize a Saudi role in Jerusalem would also be a serious violation of Article 9(2) of the Israel - Jordan peace treaty and the agreements and understandings reached between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians since then.

Nor would the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem themselves take kindly to a Saudi role in Jerusalem, especially following the Bahrain summit in which the Saudis enthusiastically participated but which went down like a lead balloon in Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinians across the political spectrum want nothing to do with a Saudi role in the Holy City, and would be likely to put aside their other differences with Jordan to support Amman on this issue.

In a few days’ time, 25 years will have passed since the Washington Declaration was agreed by Israel and Jordan that paved the path for the historic peace treaty concluded a few months later.

The declaration is a fascinating document. Without it there would be no peace between Israel and Jordan today. The agreement was brokered by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein through the liaison of their security services, as the two countries had no diplomatic relations. (An account of those negotiations appears in Efraim Halevy’s biography of his time in the Mossad.)

One of the most important provisions of the Washington Declaration is Article B(3) whereby Israel pledged that it would respect the special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan over the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem. This provision was reproduced in almost identical form in Article 9(2) of the peace treaty.

Since then there have been further understandings reached between Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel, regarding Jordan’s special role in al-Haram ash-Sharif/Temple Mount, most notably a 2013 treaty and the Kerry Understandings brokered between Israel and Jordan in October 2015 following a spate of unrest in Jerusalem.

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Jordan dates to the 1920s, when Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, father of current Saudi King Salman, deposed the Hashemites who had ruled Mecca for centuries; the grandfather of current Jordanian King Abdullah then established the kingdom of Transjordan and gained the custodianship over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in 1924 in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

King Abdullah I of Jordan visiting the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, 1 June 1948Credit: Wikipedia

But Saudi Arabia has never controlled Jerusalem, whereas the post-mandate kingdom of Jordan administered the city from 1948 until 1967. In those years, many gatherings of Arab leaders were organized in Jerusalem and no Arab state contested Jordan’s special role over the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.

The only controversy that arose concerned Jordan’s claim of sovereignty over Jerusalem. While some states, including the U.S. and the UK, did not recognize either Jordanian or Israeli claims of sovereignty over Jerusalem, they did not, according to Kimberly Katz, a noted expert on Jordanian Jerusalem, ever contest Jordan’s special role in the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.

In June 1967, when Israel captured Jerusalem's Old City, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Minister of Defense, ordered that an Israeli flag that had been hung on top of the Dome of the Rock be removed. As Dayan recalled in his autobiography, "We had no intention of controlling Muslim holy places or of interfering in their religious life."

Israel’s decision to annex Jerusalem in 1967 was not recognized by the Jordanian Waqf. Rather than impose Israeli law in the compound, Israel recognized al-Haram ash-Sharif/Temple Mount as a kind of Jordanian-controlled extra-territorial enclave surrounded by Israeli sovereignty.

The then-deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, later recalled that: "The Muslim establishment was operating on the strength of its appointment by the Kingdom of Jordan and would continue to officiate on the strength of the same appointment and according to Jordanian law." And so it has remained since.

The status quo in Jerusalem has served Israel and Jordan well over the years. It has also been accepted by the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, which closely coordinates all activities in al-Haram ash-Sharif/Temple Mount with King Abdullah.

Any suggestion of introducing new actors into the equation would be playing with fire. For if Saudi Arabia is to have a role, then why not Morocco, Turkey, or Egypt?

Unlike Saudi Arabia or Morocco, Turkey and Egypt have at least had a history of administering the shrines - Turkey under the Ottomans, and Egypt under Mohammad Ali, whereas Saudi Arabia and Morocco have never been masters of the city.

Moroccans carry a Palestinian flag during a demonstration against a visit by Trump senior advisor Jared Kushner and his Mideast peace plan, in Rabat, Morocco. June 1, 2019Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy,AP

Morocco’s claim is minor and tentative. For 700 years, adjacent to the Western Wall, there stood a "Mughrabi Quarter" for North African pilgrims, established more than 700 years ago, along with a waqf endowed by one of the kings of Morocco. The quarter was razed by Israeli forces to expand the area for Jewish prayer after the 1967 Six Day War.

Saudi Arabia’s claim is connected to its status as Protector or Servant of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina ("Khdim al-aramayn aš-Šarfayn"). The significance of Saudi control over these holy places is connected with the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, a mandatory religious duty for Muslims.

Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, known as "visitation," is not compulsory, but was a common practice for devout Muslims as a preamble to the hajj. According to Amikam Elad, a historian of the medieval Middle East, the tradition of pilgrims visiting Jerusalem in order to sanctify themselves for the Hajj dates back to the first quarter of the eighth century.

Significant religious legitimacy is conferred on those who control the Muslim holy shrines in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. This is why any attempt to change the status quo will be fiercely contested – and would internationalize and intensify the extant tensions over Jerusalem to cover a wide swathe of the Muslim and Arab world.

And that's not the end of the Pandora's box of geopolitical and religious issues that would emerge.

Jordanian protesters take part in a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's "Deal of the Century", after Friday prayers in Amman, Jordan, June 21, 2019Credit: \ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

Would a "peace plan" providing for a Saudi role in Jerusalem, if it were accepted by Riyadh, imply that Saudi Arabia recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the whole city?

The peace treaty between Israel and Jordan recognized Jordan’s pre-existing special role in Jerusalem’s holy shrines from 1948-1994. But recognizing a historically unprecedented Saudi role would be tantamount to recognition by Saudi Arabia that Israel has sovereignty over the city.

That would nullify the express position of King Salman, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, all of whom have made it abundantly clear that they do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

The Trump administration considered the scale of demonstrations in the Arab world in the wake of its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital were over-hyped as predictions, and underwhelming in reality. But the repercussions in the streets of interfering with the status quo over Islam's third holiest shrine would be far more ominous.

Victor Kattan is Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and an Associate Fellow at the Faculty of Law. Twitter: @VictorKattan

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