The hefty price of the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty

Osama al sharif
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. (File photo: Jordan News)
The long and convoluted history of the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty, now 28 years old, has seen many ups and downs, but the leaders of the two countries have always sought to give the fragile and frigid peace a new lease on life. اضافة اعلان

In September 1997, King Hussein threatened then prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu with abolishing the peace treaty unless Israel sent an antidote needed to save the life of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, who was a victim of an assassination attempt by Mossad in the heart of Amman. Netanyahu relented.

Between then and now, relations between the two passed through, and survived, numerous tests. The killing of seven Israeli schoolgirls by a Jordanian soldier in March 1997 in a border area forced King Hussein to visit Israel and apologize to the families of the bereaved. An Israeli soldier killed a Jordanian judge in cold blood as he crossed the bridge into the West Bank in 2014. The killer was never prosecuted. And in 2017, an Israeli guard shot dead two Jordanians at the embassy compound in Amman. He was repatriated and was never charged, despite promises that he would be held accountable.

But the real threat to peace between the two countries was always going to be the dispute over custody of the  Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem. Jordan had severed ties with the West Bank in 1988, except for its responsibility, which extends decades before the Israeli occupation of 1967, toward what Muslims call Al-Haram Al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, a 144-dunum area in the heart of the old city. King Hussein and later King Abdullah made sure that the Hashemite custodianship of the compound was a red line never to be crossed in bilateral ties.

Unlike the first Arab country that had signed a peace treaty with Israel, Egypt, which has long settled all territorial disputes with Israel, ending with the return of Taba in 1989, for Jordan the final disengagement from the West Bank was incomplete. Israel had agreed to “respect the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem” under the 1994 peace treaty. That meant respecting the historical status quo under which the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf continues to administer the compound, where visitors have access under its supervision.

But while Muslims consider the compound and all it includes an exclusively Muslim site, as it has been for over a millennium, a rising element of Jewish extremists alleges, with no archaeological proof, that Al-Aqsa stands on the ruins of Solomon’s temple. This claim has become part of the mainstream dogma as religious right-wing parties began dominating the Israeli political stage.

When Likud leader Ariel Sharon made his controversial visit to the Al-Aqsa compound in 2000, he triggered what became known as the Second Intifada. That breach was a watershed moment that ushered in more provocative “visits” to the compound. The issue became a festering wound in future Jordan-Israel ties. Over the past few years, and under Netanyahu governments, the provocations became more regular, causing several showdowns between King Abdullah and Netanyahu.

But even then, Netanyahu never challenged the Jordanian custodianship of Al-Aqsa directly, even though he permitted members of his Cabinet to participate in unauthorized tours of the compound.
Israel has been veering to the right with every election cycle and it is a matter of time before this government or a future administration enforces the physical division of the mosque to appease extremist voters.
With the arrival of Naftali Bennett, a right winger and supporter of Jewish settlers, Jordan, perhaps prematurely, believed that tensions would recede over Al-Aqsa. King Abdullah wanted to prevent a repeat of last May’s war between Israel and Hamas, triggered by assaults on Al-Aqsa by settlers and religious groups during Ramadan. He met with top Israeli officials in March in a bid to maintain calm. That did not happen. Instead, Bennett escalated and pushed for a division of the compound, and making daily visits by Jews a new reality. And on Sunday, he made the starkest challenge to the Hashemite custodianship yet, by stating that there will be no foreign interference in Israeli decisions concerning Jerusalem and the “Temple Mount”. This, despite repeated assurances by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid that Israel was still committed to respecting the historical status quo of Al-Aqsa.

Bennett, whose coalition government could fall any time, is appealing to the far right and religious voters. But his remarks put Jordan in a difficult position. Israel has been veering to the right with every election cycle and it is a matter of time before this government or a future administration enforces the physical division of the mosque to appease extremist voters.

How Jordan would react is now the most important question.

With limited leverage over Israeli politics, Jordan’s options are limited and tough. A breakup with Israel would open Pandora’s Box for both countries and usher in a religious war.

There is a message here for other Arab countries looking to normalize ties with Israel, which is no longer the secular socialist state that was envisioned by Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. Israel is turning into an entity ruled by far right religious extremists who openly embrace and practice racism and rule over the longest occupation of modern times.

As Jordan is now learning, the peace that it had concluded with Israel 28 years ago carries a hefty price, one that could have deep domestic repercussions.

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

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