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Amman attitudes

Criticism of Jordan is getting louder, but not from Congress 

‘I think most of us on both sides of the House feel that [King Abdullah II] has been a very positive player in trying to bring a resolution of conflict in the Middle East.’ Rep. Steny Hoyer told Jewish Insider

STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

(From L-R) Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), King Abdullah II of Jordan, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) stand for a photo at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 2022.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to hold a confirmation hearing today for Yael Lempert, currently a top Mideast diplomat, to be the U.S. ambassador to Jordan. The hearing comes at a time of heightened tensions between Jordan and its neighbor Israel, which have long maintained a cold peace.

Jordan, while continuing its long-standing ties with Israel, has been reluctant to embrace the Abraham Accords and the Negev Forum. Amman’s management of the Temple Mount has been a source of tensions and accusations that it is inciting unrest, rather than helping to ease it. Jordan has also refused to extradite Ahlam Tamimi, who was involved in the bombing of a Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem, to the U.S. after being released to the Hashemite Kingdom from Israel in a 2011 prisoner swap.

The pattern of behavior has prompted some foreign policy analysts to call for the U.S. to exert more direct pressure on Jordan, which receives billions in U.S. humanitarian and military aid. 

But there appears to be less appetite among lawmakers of either party to shift U.S. posture toward Jordan, whose king, Abdullah II, maintains friendly relationships with and regularly visits members of Congress.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), a former House majority leader, accompanied House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) on a delegation to the Middle East this week that included stops in Jordan and Israel, and a meeting with Jordanian king.

“The king made it very clear that he wanted to work closely with Israel,” Hoyer told Jewish Insider upon returning to the U.S. “He has a good relationship with the president of Israel, a good relationship with the prime minister of Israel. And I think most of us on both sides of the House feel that he has been a very positive player in trying to bring a resolution of conflict in the Middle East.”

Hoyer said the group did not specifically discuss the Jordanian monarch’s view on the Abraham Accords or the Tamimi extradition case.

“I believe he wants to be a positive player in bringing both the Arab community closer to Israel, in terms of economic, cultural and social relations,” Hoyer continued. “I think we all had a very positive belief that the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis needed to be and could be resolved at some point in time, and he said nothing adverse to the Abraham Accords… He has been very courageous, as his father was in the past, courageous on stepping forward on behalf of a peaceful, positive relationship with Israel.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and led a Senate delegation to Jordan last September, rebuffed suggestions that the U.S. should be placing pressure on Jordan.

“Both Israel and Jordan are very good allies in the Middle East,” Rounds told JI. “If there is a role for the United States to play, I don’t think we would hesitate to play the role, but it wouldn’t be one of telling one side what to do, but rather finding common ground.”

Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY), a first-term lawmaker who also joined McCarthy’s delegation, said the group met with Abdullah for around 45 minutes over dinner.

“I don’t think that his view was that there are… deep issues between Israel and Jordan, at least from the way that he portrayed the relationship between Israel and Jordan,” D’Esposito said. “At least from the way that he portrayed the relationship is that there weren’t always perhaps agreements, but that they were partners, so to speak, in embracing peace in the Middle East.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who led a delegation to Israel last week, emphasized that Israeli leaders also described a generally strong relationship with Jordan.

“The leaders that we met with made clear they viewed Jordan as an important partner in the security efforts with respect to the fragile situation in the West Bank, and that there was ongoing dialogue as to how to get to a better place in a productive fashion,” Jeffries told JI.

Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JI that Congress should be exerting more pressure on Jordan over its “incitement” of violence and harboring of Tamimi in particular, arguing that the kingdom “can’t be playing both sides and getting $1.5 billion a year from us.”

Dubowitz proposed that a similar approach to the one applied in the Taylor Force Act could be applied to Jordan for protecting Tamimi. 

“We could use the same legislation to put pressure on the king to say, ‘Enough. We give you $1.5 billion. This is a terrorist who killed Americans, and hand her over or we’re going to start seriously reconsidering some or all of our aid,’” Dubowitz said. 

He said lawmakers should begin with face-to-face pressure on Jordanian leadership, but could escalate to explicit conditions on aid to Jordan if needed.

“We never hold Jordan accountable in the same way” as other Middle Eastern partners like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Dubowitz added. “I don’t see Democrats in the House and Senate, and Republicans too, ever calling out the king for the ways in which he undermines American security and creates problems for Israel. I think that this needs to be a heart-to-heart conversation between members of Congress and the king.”

Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JI that it’s unlikely that members of Congress will substantially change their posture toward Jordan or its king.

“People have picked on Jordan going back to the Trump administration for not leaping forward on the Abraham Accords,” Fishman said. “They have two different arguments in response. A, they have a peace treaty [with Israel] so we don’t need them, and B, the Palestinians need to be represented, which is a non-starter for other participants… I think most people understand both arguments and have not really pushed them.”

“In terms of politics here, I can’t see Jordan becoming more of a political issue or a partisan issue because of the king’s relations with all sides,” he continued.

Fishman characterized the annual issues surrounding the Temple Mount at Ramadan as largely fleeting. And he emphasized that, despite past tensions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan, the Israeli security establishment has generally stood up in defense of Jordan.

“The bilateral Jordan-Israel relationship is anchored in security,” he said. “Any member of Congress who’s going to Jordan or Israel, meeting with the respective militaries, or even the king, will hear that.”

As for security aid, Fishman argued that “it’s in our interests to support Jordan” to help ensure stability throughout the region, and that there’s little the U.S. can do at this stage to shift Jordan’s relationship with Israel or bring it into the Abraham Accords without progress on the Palestinian peace process.

Jewish Insider’s Washington correspondent Gabby Deutch contributed reporting.

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