January 31 2023 9:23 AM E-paper Newsletter Subscribe Sign in My Account Sign out
 
 

Netanyahu bows to Jordan’s ‘red lines’ — for now

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu
(Photo: Twitter)
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu

Osama Al Sharif

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

Tuesday’s meeting between King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in Amman signals a possible thaw in relations and a concession by Netanyahu. As the first meeting between the two men in almost five years, King Abdullah’s distrust of the Israeli premier was clear, noting that the two have sparred many times mostly over Israel’s provocations at Al-Aqsa Mosque. اضافة اعلان

King Abdullah, a few days before Netanyahu took office, warned that he is prepared for conflict should the status of Jerusalem’s holy sites change, stating that he has “red lines” and that “if people want to push those red lines, then we will deal with that.”

And speculation has it that Tuesday’s meeting took place as a result of direct pressure from the US on Netanyahu to recommit to previous understandings.
Since taking office, the new far-right Israeli government was quick to provoke its neighbor, Jordan, over one of the most sensitive issues for the Hashemite Kingdom: the status of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound — despite an almost 30-year-old peace treaty.
Since taking office, the new far-right Israeli government was quick to provoke its neighbor, Jordan, over one of the most sensitive issues for the Hashemite Kingdom: the status of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound — despite an almost 30-year-old peace treaty.

A day after Israel swore in its most extreme government in December, Benyamin Netanyahu’s highly controversial National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir took a provocative tour of the courts of Al-Aqsa Complex in occupied East Jerusalem. This sent a message to his radical followers that he is a man of his word.

In doing so, he has called for changing the centuries-old status quo agreement in the Holy site, asking for Jews to worship openly and to divide the Muslim shrine.

Last week, Israel sought to set a precedent by blocking the Jordanian ambassador to Tel Aviv from making a routine visit to the complex, which is overseen by the Kingdom’s Waqf administration.

He was let in after a formal protest, but the challenge to Jordan’s sovereignty over the 144,000sq.m. Al-Haram Al-Sharif was unambiguous.
For years, radical Jewish settlers have been allowed to storm Al-Aqsa daily under successive Israeli governments, but none have attempted to alter or abrogate the historic status quo of the Muslim shrine.
During a UN Security Council session, Jordan vocalized that Israel’s breach was seeking to ignite a religious conflict. On the following day, 35 EU consuls and representatives visited the site to show solidarity with Jordan and to underline recognition of the Hashemite custodianship.

For years, radical Jewish settlers have been allowed to storm Al-Aqsa daily under successive Israeli governments, but none have attempted to alter or abrogate the historic status quo of the Muslim shrine. Even former prime minister of Israel — who was considered more “friendly” —  Naftali Bennett’s bold declaration in May of 2022 that “all decisions regarding the Temple Mount (Al-Aqsa Mosque) and Jerusalem will be made by the Israeli government, which holds sovereignty over the city, without any foreign considerations,” was considered by most Jordanian pundits as going an extra mile for Israel.

What this means, however, is that upsetting the 19th-century status quo tenet on Al-Haram Al-Sharif is only a matter of time. It could happen under this government or the next, but the fact that Israel is being taken over by ultranationalist and ultra-orthodox parties, as the results of the October elections have demonstrated, underlines the point.

In 2015, then US Secretary of State John Kerry formalized a deal between King Abdullah and Netanyahu that reinforced the existing status quo agreement. In recent days and weeks, the US, Europe, Russia, China, the Arab League, and many others have expressed support for Jordan's role and for maintaining the existing status quo at the holy site. In fact, the US delivered a stern message to Netanyahu that it will not accept any change to Jordan’s role at Al-Aqsa.

But even if Netanyahu, who is not to be trusted, adheres to the current status, can he rein in his radical coalition partners; Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich (Finance Minister and leader of the Religious Zionist Party)?

To preserve his coalition government, Netanyahu has already made considerable concessions concerning the future of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. More provocations are almost certainly on their way. So how would Jordan react?
The custodianship is linked directly to the legitimacy of the Hashemites, who have been the guardians of the Noble Sanctuary since the 1920s. And King Abdullah, like his father, the late King Hussein, before him, has emphasized his unbreakable personal bond as custodian of the Holy site in addition to Christian shrines in East Jerusalem.
In 2020 King Abdullah warned of a “massive conflict” and did not rule out suspending the peace treaty if Netanyahu, who was running for re-election, carried out his promise to annex the Jordan Valley.

Back then, the Trump administration exerted pressure on Netanyahu and a conflict was averted.

Jordan's red lines concerning Al-Aqsa Mosque are much different.

The custodianship is linked directly to the legitimacy of the Hashemites, who have been the guardians of the Noble Sanctuary since the 1920s. And King Abdullah, like his father, the late King Hussein, before him, has emphasized his unbreakable personal bond as custodian of the Holy site in addition to Christian shrines in East Jerusalem. 

Suspending the peace treaty with Israel would trigger a serious crisis, but it cannot be ruled out entirely as a possibility. It would be Jordan's nuclear option. Jordan would likely first rely on a major international backlash, led by the US and Europe, if Israel were to tamper with the existing status quo at the mosque.

Jordan would also seek the support of Arab states that had joined the Abraham Accords, hoping that they would use their leverage with the Israeli premier.

To preempt any Israeli rupture, Jordan would wage a diplomatic campaign to assert its role at Al-Haram Al-Sharif.  But Israel would be wrong to assume that Jordan would not risk suspending the peace treaty if Israel did go ahead with altering the status quo at the compound. The ties to Al-Aqsa transcend the Hashemites and affect millions of Palestinians and Jordanians, not to mention Arabs and Muslims. It will test America’s influence over Israel and could indeed lead to a religious conflict in the region.

Despite these potential consequences, Israel's religious and ultranationalist far-right believe that taking over Al-Aqsa is necessary for their battle for the Judaization of Jerusalem and the elimination of all traces of Muslim and Christian heritage there.

Averting such a catastrophic event must not be borne by Jordan alone.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.