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Israel and Jordan’s Relationship Is Better Than It Looks

For both countries, national interests continue to trump personality-based politics.

By , a former Amman-based journalist.
Then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Jordanian King Abdullah II during a visit to Amman on Jan. 16, 2014.
Then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Jordanian King Abdullah II during a visit to Amman on Jan. 16, 2014. Kobi Gideon / GPO/Getty Images

Few Jordanians shed a tear at the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s run as Israeli prime minister last month. Highlighting a sentiment common in Amman, Jordan’s former information minister, Mohammad Momani, said “any Israeli premier other than Netanyahu would be better for Jordan.”

Although Jordanians often deemed Netanyahu’s actions as provocations—Jordan’s King Abdullah II reportedly refused to take Netanyahu’s phone calls in 2015 and 2020 due to frustrations with the Israeli premier—Abdullah has maintained diplomatic and security ties with Israel throughout his 22-year tenure, irrespective of the country’s premier. In doing so, he has prioritized Jordan’s national interests over personality-based politics. Abdullah remains sensitive to the Hashemite Kingdom’s large Palestinian population and its politics—a factor that prevents a warm peace with Israel. So he has instead settled for a cold peace to maintain the nearly $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid Amman receives from pro-Israel lawmakers in Washington, keeping Jordan’s relationship with Israel on a relatively continuous track.

To be sure, there have been signs of improved relations between Israel and Jordan since Netanyahu’s ousting. In one of his first gestures as Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett agreed to double its supply of water to the Hashemite Kingdom, one of the world’s driest nations. On June 29, Abdullah and Bennett were said to have met in Amman, with Israeli media reporting the two countries agreed to open a “new page” in bilateral relations. Abdullah told CNN on July 25 he was “encouraged” by his meeting with Bennett.

Few Jordanians shed a tear at the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s run as Israeli prime minister last month. Highlighting a sentiment common in Amman, Jordan’s former information minister, Mohammad Momani, said “any Israeli premier other than Netanyahu would be better for Jordan.”

Although Jordanians often deemed Netanyahu’s actions as provocations—Jordan’s King Abdullah II reportedly refused to take Netanyahu’s phone calls in 2015 and 2020 due to frustrations with the Israeli premier—Abdullah has maintained diplomatic and security ties with Israel throughout his 22-year tenure, irrespective of the country’s premier. In doing so, he has prioritized Jordan’s national interests over personality-based politics. Abdullah remains sensitive to the Hashemite Kingdom’s large Palestinian population and its politics—a factor that prevents a warm peace with Israel. So he has instead settled for a cold peace to maintain the nearly $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid Amman receives from pro-Israel lawmakers in Washington, keeping Jordan’s relationship with Israel on a relatively continuous track.

To be sure, there have been signs of improved relations between Israel and Jordan since Netanyahu’s ousting. In one of his first gestures as Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett agreed to double its supply of water to the Hashemite Kingdom, one of the world’s driest nations. On June 29, Abdullah and Bennett were said to have met in Amman, with Israeli media reporting the two countries agreed to open a “new page” in bilateral relations. Abdullah told CNN on July 25 he was “encouraged” by his meeting with Bennett.

Despite these hopes, Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in Jerusalem limit Abdullah’s potential ties with Bennett, just as they have reigned in respective premiers since the two countries signed a peace agreement in 1994. Only five days after Bennett became premier, on June 18, Jordan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the “flagrant violations” at the al-Aqsa mosque after Israeli police fired at Palestinian worshipers, wounding nine people. The same day Israel announced the water deal with Jordan, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi accused Israel of committing a “war crime” should the Bennett government proceed with the eviction of Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

After Bennett promised on July 18 to protect the “freedom of worship” for Jews on the Temple Mount, which shares a compound with al-Aqsa—a pledge even Netanyahu never made during his premiership—and allowed more than 1,600 Jews to visit the site on a single day, Jordan rebuked Israel for permitting what it called a “storming of extremists.” Israel then pledged to respect Jordan’s “special role” in overseeing Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy sites per the 1994 treaty.

Furthermore, unlike Abdullah’s meeting with other world leaders, Jordan refused to release pictures from his session with Bennett and only confirmed the meeting to the media one month later—in English to a U.S. media outlet. Amman also declined to publicly congratulate Bennett on forming a new government, in contrast to numerous world leaders from Russia to India. Despite some newfound goodwill between Abdullah and Bennett, some gaps remain too large to allow for a warm alliance.

Although the United Arab Emirates has looked to publicize its ties with Israel, Jordan insists on downplaying much of its cooperation with the country. Nearly 60 percent of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian descent, so Abdullah’s public relationship with Israel is mostly marked by his support of the Palestinian cause. With unemployment among Jordanians spiking to nearly 25 percent due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and the monarchy undergoing a period of instability after the April “sedition” plot involving Prince Hamzah bin Hussein—Abdullah does not appear able to weather any more public criticism, especially of cozying up to Israel. The Jordanian government has instead attempted to deflect from many of his country’s woes by condemning the Jewish state.

Jordan’s criticisms of and rhetoric on the Palestinian issue do not shake the fundamentals of its relationship with Israel.

Although Jordan consistently resorts to harsh language on Israel—particularly concerning the status of Jerusalem—its threatening rhetoric has often not been matched with firm action. Over the course of Abdullah’s two decade rule, Amman has accused Israel dozens of times of “violations” in Jerusalem, particularly of crossing a “red line”—a somewhat vague pledge to protect the city’s Islamic holy sites and Palestinian residents from perceived aggressions by Israeli forces. At times, the Hashemite Kingdom has also temporarily withdrawn its ambassador in Tel Aviv for consultations. But the 1994 peace treaty has endured as has intelligence cooperation—even when Israeli Jews have prayed at the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa compound, a violation of the tenuous status quo at the holy site. Jordan’s criticisms of and rhetoric on the Palestinian issue do not shake the fundamentals of its relationship with Israel, even if they ensure the two countries won’t move beyond a cold peace.

In 2017, during the Netanyahu era, the former Israeli premier angered Jordanians by hugging an Israeli guard who killed two Jordanian nationals at the Israeli Embassy’s residence in Amman. In March, Crown Prince Hussein canceled a visit to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, with Safadi accusing Israel of changing Hussein’s travel arrangements and hindering the rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem to pray at the holy site—an incident deemed a personal insult to the royal family.

But even amid these controversies, Jordan maintained a working relationship with Israel. During Netanyahu’s final months in power, Israel had an ambassador stationed in Amman and Jordan had an ambassador serving in Tel Aviv. This means Jordan enjoys stronger diplomatic ties with Israel than Turkey does, which expelled the Israeli ambassador to Ankara in 2018. Former Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi—who served under Netanyahu—met with Safadi three times from May 2020 until June of this year to discuss trade and regional developments. Last year, Jordan began receiving its first natural gas supplies from Israel after a $10 billion deal was signed in 2016. Intelligence cooperation between Israel and Jordan have also continued at a high level. The left-wing Haaretz newspaper, a frequent critic of Netanyahu, described the two countries’ security ties in 2019 as “greatly improved” and “more sophisticated over the years.”

Jordan’s demand for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, has long been a core feature of its foreign policy. But although he is a relative newcomer, it is highly improbable Bennett, a former director of a settler lobbyist group, will end Israeli control over the West Bank and evacuate large settlements to appease the Hashemite Kingdom. Bennett has also maintained a relatively forceful policy on the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount compound, sending in security forces at least twice to maintain “order” during his short time as premier.

If Israel was to take a far-reaching step, such as annexing large parts of the West Bank, Jordan would likely be more compelled to annul its diplomatic ties with Israel. However, as Bennett’s coalition includes the Islamist United Arab List faction and left-wing Meretz party, it appears highly improbable his government would adopt such dramatic measures.

The United States, a strategic partner of both Jordan and Israel, has prioritized improving ties between the two countries. Jordan and Egypt, the first Arab states to sign peace deals with Israel, are among the largest recipients of U.S. foreign assistance. The authoritarian Abdullah, who oversees an extensive patronage system and bloated public sector, is increasingly dependent on this U.S. aid to bolster his rule. Abdullah understands he needed a functioning relationship with Israel to keep approximately $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to the Hashemite Kingdom flowing—especially as Jordan experiences record public debt of $45 billion. If Abdullah was to cut ties with Israel as Venezuela and Bolivia did during the 2009 Gaza War, the generous aid package to Jordan would likely face difficult questions from pro-Israel U.S. lawmakers.

Jordan would also face challenges if it gives up its security cooperation with Israel. The greatest threat to Amman’s stability occurred in 1970, when approximately 40,000 Palestine Liberation Organization fighters established military bases across Jordan to attack Israel. As Palestinian guerrillas took over parts of Jordan, then-Jordanian King Hussein dispatched the military to expel them from the country (an effort he requested Israeli military support for). During the operation, Jordanian forces killed at least 3,000 Palestinian fighters, with scores of Palestinian civilians among the dead.

The events, known as Black September, solidified Jordan’s need to prevent the loss of its sovereignty to external actors. It made clear to the Hashemites that militants initially aiming to strike Israel from Jordan were likely to eventually turn their arms inward. In this way, Israel and Jordan maintain a common security interest.

Although Jordanian and Israeli officials tend to remain mum on sensitive security cooperation, CNN reported Israel flew drones along the Jordanian-Syrian border to help Amman thwart attacks by the Islamic State and engaged in intelligence collection operations in 2015. In 2017, Israel reportedly provided Jordan with satellite photos of activities on the Hashemite Kingdom’s borders with Syria and Iraq to improve Amman’s defenses. Israel also greatly benefits from these security ties: Jordan, Israel’s longest border, is also its quietest. The Israeli military only needs to deploy three battalions along the border with Jordan, freeing up resources to use in the occupied West Bank and to the north, near Lebanon.

Jordan’s ties with Israel have long been fraught. But despite the media’s focus on the dynamics between Abdullah and various Israeli leaders, there are few signs the Jordanian government will dramatically change its policies as Bennett succeeds Netanyahu. Rather, Amman will likely resume its delicate balancing act of critiquing Israeli policy toward Palestinians while pushing back against attempts to scrap the 1994 peace treaty entirely. Jordanian national interests offer no other alternative.

Aaron Magid is a former Amman-based journalist. His articles on Jordanian politics have appeared in Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and Al-Monitor. Twitter: @AaronMagid

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