Why Jordan is not embracing the Abraham Accords

Israel and Jordan have maintained a shaky peace for more than 30 years, now with the Abraham Accords normalization process taking hold in the region, the two countries’ differences have come into sharper focus.

Last week, Israel’s recently reinstalled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprise visit to Amman, Jordan, where he met with King Abdullah II. 

Readouts from the meeting sent out by each leader’s office struck a similar tone. Both emphasized maintaining stability in a volatile region. Yet, while Israel’s statement highlighted the “strategic, security and economic cooperation between Israel and Jordan,” Jordan’s was focused on respecting the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and support for Palestinian sovereignty.

The meeting, and contrasting messaging, come at a time of heightened tension between the two countries, which have maintained a cool and shaky peace for more than 30 years. While the two neighbors cooperate closely in the fields of security, water and energy, disagreements between Israel and Jordan – and between Netanyahu and Abdullah in particular – have dominated the diplomatic and political arenas for years.

As the process of normalization with Israel – sparked by 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, followed by separate agreements with Morocco and Sudan – continues to be deepened with meet-ups such as last March’s Negev Forum, tensions between Israel and Jordan has been brought into even sharper focus.

Part of the tension centers around the holy site, which like all of Jerusalem’s Old City was under Jordanian control until 1967, when it was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War. Today, the status quo refers to Jordan still being custodians at the Haram al-Sharif, which includes the third holiest site in Islam, while Israel maintains overall security for the area. Jews are permitted to visit the Temple Mount, which they believe is the site where two holy Jewish temples once stood, but are forbidden from praying there, a point of contention for an increasing number of Israelis, including a portion of Netanyahu’s newly appointed cabinet.

In Jordan, Abdullah is watching closely as Netanyahu’s new government takes up office and far-right ministers in the Israeli coalition insist on a change in status at the holy site. At the same time, the king is contending with ongoing social and economic unrest in his own country, one of the region’s poorest. Protests and poverty are a constant threat to his status.

In Israel, Netanyahu is struggling to strike a balance between his ideologically driven far-right cohorts, and a desire to expand the circle of Abraham Accords countries – regional Arab states – who are willing to normalize ties with Israel.  

“Netanyahu’s visit to Amman is very important,” Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Dayan Center in Tel Aviv University, told Jewish Insider. “Netanyahu understands that in order to maintain calm in Jerusalem and the West Bank, especially during the upcoming Ramadan period, he has to improve his own image in the eyes of the Arab world.”

“He also understands that he cannot really promote any moves toward the Arab world, as long as the issue of Jerusalem is still in a very high tension,” Milshtein continued. “In many ways, the path to Riyadh is via Amman.”

Daoud Kuttab, a Jordanian columnist with Al-Monitor and Arab News, told JI, however, that the Abraham Accords does not hold great significance for Jordan because “there is already a peace treaty with Israel and that is more advanced than normalization.”

What bothers the Jordanians, he said, is that they constantly feel belittled by Israel and see many of the Jewish states’ promises to its neighbor being broken.

“Jordanians feel that Israel looks down on them, that it does not take Jordan seriously,” Kuttab continued, listing multiple promises and guarantees made during previous meet-ups and summits between Abdullah and Netanyahu that were not fulfilled or kept.

He noted a set of understandings reached between the leaders in 2014 with mediation from then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in which Israel committed to preventing radical and extremist Jews from repeatedly visiting the Temple Mount.

“Radical people have ulterior motives, they are not coming as tourists, they are coming to change the status,” Kuttab noted. “The Jordanians are right in worrying that the repeat visitors and extremist visitors are not coming to visit like any normal tourist would come but they have these ulterior motives, and that worries the Jordanians.”

In a brief published last month by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Jonathan Schanzer, the think tank’s senior vice president for research, noted that Jordan’s ongoing frustration towards its neighbor to the west is working counter to the spirit of the Accords, not only unsettling the region but also hindering U.S. national security interests.

“Ties between Jordan and Israel are currently at a low point,” he wrote, outlining Jordan’s social and economic woes, as well as the dominance of the Palestinian issue on the political country’s agenda. “A return to the fundamentals, with a concurrent embrace of the new regional order, are key to a prosperous and secure future for both American allies.”

Schanzer urged the U.S. to work to improve ties between Amman and Jerusalem, an issue that he suggested was raised when U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met last week with Netanyahu, and which is most certainly also being pushed with Abdullah in Jordan.

“King Abdullah is under pressure from Washington and from the UAE to join the Abraham Accords because they can really benefit from it,” Oded Eran, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JI.

A former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, Eran said he sees some signs that Amman is softening its stance towards the possibility of joining the process but that it came with a caveat.

“They are saying yes to the Negev Forum provided that the Palestinians participate in the activities,” he said. “They’re telling Israel and Washington they need to create the conditions to allow the Palestinians to participate, and if that happens then they will also participate.”

I think we need to understand the internal arena in Jordan,” explained Milshtein. “The king himself is really afraid of being portrayed as a collaborator with Israel or with the U.S. Whenever there is an event in Jerusalem relating to the Temple Mount, there are demonstrations in Jordan, and in a minute those demonstrations can switch focus and turn against him.”

Milshtein noted that the situation in Jordan, where more than 70 percent of the population is of Palestinian heritage, is “much more complex and sensitive” than other countries in the region, including Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel. Egypt did participate in the Negev Forum and spin-off meetings, a sign of warming relations with Israel following the signing of the Abraham Accords.

Mansour Abu Rashid, a former major general in the Jordanian armed services who describes himself as a peace activist, said that while Jordan is willing to work to strengthen peace between Israelis and Arabs, it would not be pressured by any other country.

“We signed a peace agreement with Israel 32 years ago and we are serious about strengthening peace, but where [are] the Palestinians in this story? Why don’t the Americans use their position to pressure the Israelis to invite the Palestinian Authority to take part in this process?” he asked.  

“The Jordanians and the Palestinian Authority have very good relations and they want to finish this conflict,” Rashid continued. “Jordan can play a role in releasing tensions between the Palestinians and Israel… If you look at the press release from the meeting with Netanyahu, King Abdullah stressed that any future cooperation with Jordan must include the Palestinians.”

“Until we find a solution to the Palestinian problem, and the conflict, I think the relationship between Jordan and Israel will not improve,” he observed. “As Jordanians, we want to see some hope for the Palestinians and an independent sovereign state for them to live side by side with the Israelis.”

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