Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Netanyahu jeopardizes the absolute strategic centrality of Jordan for Israel
Q. A fourth round of Israeli elections is barely a week away. Israel’s corona outlook is surprisingly good. Where and why does Jordan suddenly enter the strategic picture?
A. Jordan entered, or reentered, the picture last week when it responded to a perceived Israeli affront to the Hashemite royal family by preventing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first visit to the United Arab Emirates. The details are instructive.
A March 10 visit to the Temple Mount on the occasion of a Muslim holiday by Jordan’s 26-year old Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah was cancelled at the last minute due to a row over security arrangements. The holiday is significant because it focuses on the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims. It celebrates the Prophet Muhammad’s fabled midnight journey from Mecca to Jerusalem in AD 621.
Jordan, we recall, is by dint of its 1994 peace treaty with Israel responsible for the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. Hussein’s aborted visit last week was meant to reflect that reality. Amman’s response to the fiasco was to cancel permission for Netanyahu’s plane to overfly Jordan on its way to a quickie two-hour visit to meet Abu Dhabi’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ).
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi explained: “You renege on an agreement with Jordan, you disrupt a religious visit, you create conditions that made this religious visit on a holy occasion impossible and then you expect to come to Jordan and fly out of Jordan? Let’s be serious here.” Amman apparently persuaded Riyadh to close its airspace briefly too so Netanyahu’s plane could not bypass Jordan from the south. Since Netanyahu’s schedule did not allow for delay, he postponed the UAE visit and meeting.
Q. All hardly earthshaking . . .
A. It is, when we encounter the multiple regional strategic dimensions involved and the gathering anger and frustration with Israel on the part of the Hashemite leadership. Crown Prince Hussein’s aborted visit was understood as only the latest in a series of slights to the Hashemite family perpetrated by Netanyahu in recent years. These include two incidents in which Israeli security guards killed Jordanians on Jordanian soil--one of the guards was callously lionized later by Netanyahu in Jerusalem--and Netanyahu’s declared aim of annexing the Jordan Valley, Jordan’s border with the West Bank.
Israel’s perceived withdrawal from the ‘Red-Dead’ canal-energy-desalination project and its construction of an Eilat airport perilously close to Jordan’s Aqaba airport have added to the list of Jordanian grievances. No wonder Israel was forced to withdraw in 2019 from two border territories it had leased from Jordan for 25 years under provisions of the 1994 peace treaty: there was absolutely no foundation of mutual trust upon which to negotiate an extension of the leases.
In view of this backdrop, Jordan’s King Abdullah II was not impressed by the explanation of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service for rejecting Hussein’s visit last week: that the Jordanian side had not adhered to a prior agreement regarding the number and nature of Jordanian security personnel accompanying the crown prince. Israel is understandably sensitive to what happens on the Temple Mount--a potential tinderbox where violence can be instantaneous and can set off an intifada. All other things being equal, the incident could have been forgotten.
But they are not equal. In the Jordanian perception, Israel’s recent normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain reflect Jerusalem’s preference for warm relations with distant neighbors--relations devoid of a strong legacy of past conflict over the Palestinian issue--in contrast with the historical baggage of complex relations with a next-door neighbor and existential ally. The Hashemite regime, with its large Palestinian population, lives in constant fear that aggressive Israeli policies and steps in the West Bank will lead to another exodus of Palestinians to Jordan (after 1948 and 1967) that will overwhelm it.
Then there is the link to Israel’s March 23 elections. Netanyahu is engaged in a frenetic last-ditch effort to garner the votes for a 61-mandate right-religious majority that will keep him in power and abort his corruption trial. The cancelled Abu Dhabi photo-op with MbZ was intended to be a vote-getter. Even an emergency appendectomy for Sara Netanyahu was not allowed by Bibi to delay the trip.
Q. Can’t Netanyahu and King Abdullah II patch this up? Netanyahu is constantly bragging about his extensive relations throughout the Arab world . . .
A. Netanyahu is persona non grata in Jordan. It all began when, early in his first term as prime minister (1996-99), he visited Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, and promised him that regarding the Palestinian issue “I will surprise you”. (At the time, Netanyahu made a similar promise to Egypt’s President Mubarrak.) In Jordanian eyes, that was the first of a series of lies Netanyahu told them. He never delivered on the Palestinian issue.
On the contrary, by presiding over settlement expansion, ignoring opportunities for improved relations with the Palestinians, and integrating the settlers into the right-religious establishment, Netanyahu has sabotaged hope for a two-state solution. King Hussein never forgave him for a botched 1997assassination attempt of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal on Jordanian soil.
Now Abdullah refuses even to take Netanyahu’s phone calls. Over the past year, Blue-White’s Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, Netanyahu’s coalition partners and political rivals, have kept the Israeli-Jordanian relationship going through their own visits to Amman--yet another damage-control achievement to be credited to their participation in the outgoing coalition.
Incidentally, Netanyahu was so frustrated by the Jordan-imposed cancellation that he briefly tried to close Israel’s airspace to traffic from Jordan. Then he nixed a planned trip to Abu Dhabi by Ashkenazi, who did not need a photo-op because he is leaving politics but who wanted to sign bilateral cooperation agreements there. Sour grapes, with a strategic price.
Gantz commented after the cancellation of Crown Prince Hussein’s visit to the Temple Mount that “By his behavior in recent years, Netanyahu has seriously damaged relations with Jordan, leading to the loss of significant assets by Israel: security, diplomatic and economic.”
Q. Well, what exactly are those assets? At a time when Israel is normalizing with distant Arab states like the UAE, Morocco and Sudan, why is damage to Jordan-related assets so important?
A. Jordan is Israel’s strategic depth looking east. Indeed, it is the entire neighborhood’s strategic depth. The British created it (‘Transjordan’) after WWI as a buffer state separating Iraq to the east from Mandatory Palestine to the west, and Syria to the north from Saudi Arabia to the south. Jordan needs a friendly Israel for its stability; in return it keeps unfriendly neighbors like Syria and Iraq--these days, that means Iran and remnants of ISIS as well--at a distance.
Israel needs Jordanian good will and active collaboration for any political arrangements with the Palestinians. Right-wing Israeli prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, who came to power spouting ‘Jordan is Palestine’ slogans as a cover for their West Bank territorial ambitions, quickly learned to value Hashemite Jordan as an ally against excess Palestinian nationalism and, in Shamir’s case during the 1991 First Iraq War, as a buffer against Iraq. They went to bat on Jordan’s behalf in Washington. Somehow, Netanyahu never got the message.
The fact of Jordan’s large Palestinian population, ruled by the non-Palestinian Hashemites, means it wants to see Palestinian territorial aspirations fulfilled on the West Bank, not in Amman. Hence its extreme disappointment with Netanyahu’s unfulfilled promise to ‘surprise you’ and its anger over Likud West Bank policies. Fear of antagonizing the Palestinians keeps Jordan’s relations with Israel relatively low-key compared to, say, the open economic and strategic enthusiasm of the UAE. Jordan and Israel coordinate their strategic security interests extensively--on land and in the air--but quietly. Jordan buys Israeli Mediterranean gas with as little fanfare as possible.
The real key to assessing Jordan’s importance to Israel and the dangers implied by Netanyahu’s negligence is to ask how Israel would be affected by a hostile regime change in Amman. The answer is that in both the regional and the Palestinian dimensions this would, by placing hostile forces along Israel’s eastern border barely 80 km. (55 miles) from Israel’s Mediterranean coast, precipitate a disaster of grand-strategic proportions.
This week marks exactly ten years since Syria descended into a spiral of revolt, chaos, Islamist extremism, and regime-sponsored mass murder by gas and barrel-bombs that turned half the population into refugees. Imagine if Syria’s tragedy had spread to Jordan. Only the persistence of a stable monarchy there kept the Arab Spring away.
Compare to Egypt, where a year of Muslim Brotherhood rule (2012-2013) passed without serious strategic damage to relations with Israel. Contemplate a change of regime in Abu Dhabi and severance by the UAE of relations with Israel: no proximate Israeli strategic interest would be affected.
Jordan is a different case entirely.
This is why Netanyahu’s neglect of the Israel-Jordan relationship and by-the-by of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is so dangerous.
Q. So what should the Israeli leadership be doing to repair relations with Jordan?
A. For starters, improve relations with the Palestinian leadership, based on dialogue, concern for shared strategic interests like water and blunting the covid pandemic, and energizing a political process designed to keep Israel Jewish and democratic by aspiring to a two-state solution. All this would reflect positively on Jordan’s attitude toward Israel.
Then there are the Abraham Accords. Amman would not spontaneously block a trip to Abu Dhabi by an Israeli leader if it understood that it stood to benefit economically from Israeli-Emirates collaboration. Israel and the UAE are planning a joint venture to produce covid vaccine? In Jordan and the West Bank the disease is raging!
Ignoring and insulting the Hashemite Kingdom is not in Israel’s strategic interest.