Relations between Jordan and Israel have never been particularly warm, even after the two signed a treaty 23 years ago that normalized ties. But recently, there has been a noticeable turn for the worse.
Since the end of July, Israel’s Embassy in Amman has been closed. According to an official Jordanian source, it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Jordan has refused to renew official diplomatic relations since an embassy security official shot dead two Jordanians during an altercation.
Jordanian Media Affairs Minister Muhammad Momani issued a press release Thursday stating Jordan’s position that the embassy would remain closed until the Israeli security official is tried in a court of law.
From Israel’s perspective, there is no way this will happen.
When the security guard returned to Israel with the rest of the embassy staff in the wake of the incident, he received a hero’s welcome from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Further complicating relations between the two countries has been Jordanian King Abdullah’s role as custodian and guardian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, including the Haram al-Sharif complex. The most radical Islamist elements in Israel, Jordan and beyond have been disseminating lies on social media and in the Arab press about Israel’s purported plans to expropriate Muslim holy places and change the status quo on the Temple Mount.
From Ramallah to Riyadh, it has become a rallying point against the “Zionist entity,” giving rise to what Israelis call the “knife intifada,” a wave of stabbings, car-rammings and shootings perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis since October 2015.
King Abdullah is under pressure not just from the huge Palestinian populace in Jordan, which makes up at least half of Jordan’s population, but from the entire Muslim world, to show that he is defending Muslim interests on the Temple Mount as custodian.
King Abdullah also has little choice but to be tough against Israel on the issue of reopening the embassy. In a country with major economic problems, a large Syrian refugee population, a growing Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political movement – and, of course, a huge Palestinian population that lacks real political representation – King Abdullah has availed himself of the old trick used by Arab autocrats, deflecting criticism from his own regime by lashing out at Israel.
Another factor that impacts Jordan’s relations with Israel is the Hashemite kingdom’s vested interest in the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Such a state is seen in Amman as a bulwark against a future Palestinian uprising in Jordan that seeks to transform Jordan into a Palestinian state. Frustrated with Netanyahu’s hawkish coalition, King Abdullah would prefer seeing a more dovish, left-wing government take power in Israel – one that does not just pay lip service to a two-state solution but views it as a cardinal Israeli interest and has the political wherewithal to carry it out.
King Abdullah’s options are limited. But he should not lose sight of the fact that Israel today shares many common interests with Jordan and other Sunni states in the region.
While it might be convenient to bash Israel in public, King Abdullah knows that the real threat he faces is from Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or even more extreme Salafist elements. The recent attack in northern Sinai is a reminder that Islamic State has not yet been defeated. Israel provides Jordan with essential intelligence and military support to protect itself.
Iran’s destabilizing role in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq is another major concern to Jordan. Without Israeli cooperation there is little prospect that Iranian influence can be rebuffed. And Jordan’s king knows and appreciates this.
The time has come for countries like Jordan to take a more pragmatic approach to relations with Israel. The Jewish state and Jordan will never agree on the religious meaning of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Jordanians will never become Zionists and Israelis will not abandon their concerns over the creation of yet another Arab state on land resonant with Jewish history.
But this does not mean Israel and Jordan cannot fight common enemies and share military intelligence, or even develop stronger civilian ties, particularly in fields such as water-sharing and environmental protection. Reopening the Israeli Embassy after some face-saving Israeli gesture is made would allow the two countries to put aside religion and ideology and focus on realpolitik.