Israel and Jordan Tread Carefully Due to Mutual Strategic Need
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Jordanian King Abdullah II for the first time in four years in the wake of tension over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Jordanian King Abdullah II on Tuesday for the first time in four years, and the first time since Netanyahu took office again a month ago.
Even before leading Israel’s most right-wing government ever, Netanyahu has had a tumultuous relationship with the Jordanian monarch.
“The timing of the meeting is surprising, so soon after the Israeli government was sworn in, when it is not yet clear the direction it will take,” according to Dr. Oded Eran, a senior researcher at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) and Israel’s former ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. “The king was likely asked to do so by both Israel and the United States.”
The visit was not announced ahead of time. The meeting was made public only after Netanyahu returned to Jerusalem.
“The two leaders discussed regional issues, especially strategic, security and economic cooperation between Israel and Jordan, which contributes to regional stability,” read the statement from Netanyahu’s office.
According to a statement from King Abdullah’s office, the talks focused on the status of the holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“King Abdullah stressed the importance of respecting the historical and legal status quo in Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” the statement read.
The timing of the meeting is surprising, so soon after the Israeli government was sworn in, when it is not yet clear the direction it will take
The site, holy to both Jews and Muslims, is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Called the Temple Mount by Jews and the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims, it is under Jordan’s custodianship. There are limits to Jewish visitation to the area near the compound, including a prohibition against Jewish prayer. These limits have been tested repeatedly by Jewish nationalists in recent years. Now, as these elements are an integral part of the Netanyahu government, there are increased fears among Muslims that the delicate status quo will be violated.
“For Jordan, its custodianship in Jerusalem is the only relic that remains from Jordanian involvement on the Palestinian matter,” Eran told The Media Line. “The issue was likely very high on the agenda of the meeting.”
Throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jordan has tried to position itself as the guardian of the Palestinian cause.
Numbers gathered by Yaraeh, a Jewish organization that encourages Jews to visit the Temple Mount, show that thousands of Jews have done so in recent months, surpassing numbers recorded in recent years.
Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, made a visit to the site on one of his first days in office. An ultra-nationalist, Ben-Gvir’s move drew worldwide condemnation.
“I have my own policy regarding the Temple Mount and I do not operate according to the policy of the Jordanian government,” he said Wednesday in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster. “I have been to the Temple Mount and I will continue to go there … Israel is a sovereign and independent nation.”
Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem, where the holy compound is located, from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War. It then annexed the area, though it received no international recognition for the move. While its sovereignty over the western part of the city is more widely accepted, the Israeli insistence that Jerusalem is its “eternal and united” capital is not.
Jordan and Israel established ties in 1994. Relations have always been chilly, but during the Netanyahu years they became even more strained. Reports have said the Jordanian king sometimes refused to take calls from the Israeli premier. Diplomatic and security ties have continued throughout the years regardless of the tensions that often accompanied the poor relations.
The ties are very different from the newly established and wide-ranging relations Israel has with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco since 2020. These were established through American mediation under the framework of the Abraham Accords.
During the last election campaign, Netanyahu said one of his main foreign policy goals was to expand the accords to include Saudi Arabia.
“It is important for Netanyahu to remove any Jordanian resistance to such a move,” said Eran. “King Abdullah will seek Palestinian involvement in any such moves and improvement of their situation; without this, he may not proceed.”
King Abdullah reigns over a country with a large Palestinian population. If the current Israeli government delivers on its promises to clamp down on Palestinians and strengthen Israel’s hold on the West Bank, he may not be inclined to host Netanyahu again.
On the other hand, Netanyahu may view the Jordanian monarch as part of an insurance policy protecting him from his own coalition partners.
“Netanyahu wants to have a framework of people and factors around him that will prevent him from the need to decide on annexation or settlement expansion,” said Eran. “This was initially done by the Abraham Accords, but now he needs it even more.”
Even before the swearing in of his government, the Israeli leader found himself in a position of needing to persuade the international community that he is at the helm and will rein in the more extremist and vocal elements of his coalition.
“I believe Netanyahu was able to buy some time for himself and his government,” said Moein Odeh, a Palestinian lawyer and political analyst. “I am not sure if the king was convinced but at least he will give Netanyahu some time.”
When Israel signed the Abraham Accords, under Netanyahu’s previous government, it was clear it had given up on annexation of the West Bank, at least temporarily. Normalization came along with the tacit understanding that Israel was not going to move forward on such plans.
Palestinians see the territories as part of their future state. Israel has populated the land with Jewish settlements since 1967. The international community considers any Israeli presence there illegal. In the past, Netanyahu vowed to officially annex the territories but never followed through. Elements in his current government, such as Ben-Gvir and others, have promised to consolidate Israeli presence in the West Bank and change its legal status.
King Abdullah is under a lot of pressure from the Palestinians in Jordan, not only because of his relationship with Netanyahu, but because of the bad economic situation in Jordan in general
The Israeli premier, who sees relations with Saudi Arabia as a top priority, will need to push back on such initiatives.
Critics of Netanyahu, also from within his own camp, have often said Netanyahu speaks differently to his home audience and to his audiences abroad.
“Netanyahu understands that even if the king will be convinced to join in on any economic initiatives, he will not accept any moves on the Palestinian matter,” said Eran. “This will not allow him to continue being part of the wider process.”
But internal affairs in Jordan dictate a more calculated stance toward Israel. Despite sometimes harsh rhetoric against Israeli policies, Jordan acknowledges the need to preserve relations with its neighbor.
Ruling over a large Palestinian population, many of them ancestors of refugees, the Jordanian leadership has always needed to be sensitive to the Palestinian cause. The economic situation in the country is dire and has hit hard at those less fortunate, many of them Palestinians.
“King Abdullah is under a lot of pressure from the Palestinians in Jordan, not only because of his relationship with Netanyahu, but because of the bad economic situation in Jordan in general,” said Odeh. “The Israeli government should understand this and must understand that Abdullah will not be able to prevent escalations if the extreme wing in the government continues to do what they are doing.”
However, being one of the most water scarce countries in the world and overwhelmingly dependent on imports of energy, Jordan needs Israel. Israeli technology could alleviate some of the pressure King Abdullah is under. Jordan also receives part of its water supply from Israel.
“There is a strategic need for relations with Jordan, so the king is looking for a middle ground that will allow him to maintain relations with Israel that will ease these pressures,” said Eran.