Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Jordan-Israel Relations: A History of Ups and Downs

Jordan-Israel Relations
A man leaving a trade union complex in the Jordanian capital Amman steps on the image of an Israeli flag on December 30, 2018. Photo: KHALIL MAZRAAWI / AFP

On 26 October 1994, Jordan and Israel signed a peace agreement known as the Wadi Araba Treaty. Twenty-five years later, no joint ceremony marking the anniversary of the agreement and the termination of two annexes of the treaty that allowed Israeli farmers to access land inside Jordan were an indication of how strained relations between the two countries have become.

In parallel, Jordan initiated the prosecution of the first Israeli national since the peace agreement took effect.
Jordan-Israel relations have always been closely linked to the Palestinian cause. One of the most important features of these relations followed the 1 December 1948 Jericho Conference, an annual event held by Palestinian leaders. During the conference, a pledge of allegiance was given to King Abdullah I as king of Palestine and Jordan, known as the unification of the two banks. Citizens of the West Bank became Jordanian citizens and were incorporated in Jordanian institutions.

Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as Jordan’s custodianship over Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, remained in place until the war of 1967, when Israel defeated the Arab Legion and occupied the West Bank. However, Palestinians continued to hold Jordanian citizenship until the Palestinian Authority was established in the West Bank and the disengagement decision was made in 1988 in preparation for the founding of a Palestinian state. After that, Jordanian citizenship and Jordanian commitments towards Palestine were withdrawn, although Jordan’s custodianship of al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy sites remained in place.

Jordan-Israel relations have gone through many ups and downs. Although the Wadi Araba Treaty was the first public meeting between the countries’ heads of state, there had been a history of secret meetings between the two.

This was confirmed in March 2014 when Shimon Peres, Israel’s former president, posted photos of himself on social media wearing various disguises to mark the Purim holiday. He said there were other occasions when he wore a disguise, such as when he went to meetings with the late King Hussein of Jordan in order to escape the notice of border guards. He said that these meetings were held in the mid-1970s. However, according to several testimonies and documents, King Abdullah I, his son and grandson also met secretly with Israeli leaders inside Israel.

In her memoir titled Confessions of Golda Meir, the former Israeli prime minister disclosed several meetings she had with King Abdullah I before the establishment of Israel in 1948. At that time, Meir was the head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, and her meetings with the Jordanian leadership were aimed at reaching a mutual understanding.

Israeli researcher Yisrael Barr revealed in his book Security of Israel Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow that such an understanding was reached before the war of 1948 that broke out between the Arab Legion and Zionist gangs after the establishment of Israel. He added that the two sides agreed the Jordanian army would not participate seriously in the war in exchange for Jordan maintaining custody of the West Bank.

Other meetings were held between King Hussein and the Israeli leadership, including the most important one held inside the Mossad intelligence agency building on 25 September 1973 before the outbreak of the war waged by Egypt and Syria against Israel.

King Hussein warned Meir of Egypt and Syria’s plan to attack Israel, and he justified disclosing the information by saying, “If [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat loses Cairo, he would withdraw to Aswan, if [former Syrian President Hafiz] Assad loses Damascus, he would withdraw to Aleppo, but if I lose Amman, where would I go? To the desert?” However, Meir did not take his warning seriously.

Despite this historic rapprochement, relations between the two countries have always been unstable due to Israel’s settlement policies that have sought to end a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. Relations typically become strained during periods of escalating confrontations between the Palestinians and Israelis. Such tensions have intensified in recent years, with Jordan-Israel relations reaching a record low in 2019.

This coincided with the decision by the United States (US), Israel’s principle foreign ally, to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the contested Golan Heights and declaration that Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not violate international law.

This was followed by several other measures by Washington seen as undermining the Palestinian leadership, notably cancelling the right of return of Palestinian refugees, 2.2. million of whom live in Jordan, and trying to settle them in the diaspora by cutting US funding to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. This was a major financial blow to the agency since the US had been its largest donor, giving $350 million annually. The US also put pressure on other countries to stop their funding for UNRWA and called on other countries to share Jordan’s custodianship over Jerusalem’s holy sites. Saudi Arabia volunteered for the role, further igniting the issue.

Another incident that soured relations was Jordan’s prosecution of Konstantin Kotov, an Israeli national, on charges of ‘illegal entry into the kingdom and possession of a narcotic substance with intent to use it’. This is the first time since the Wadi Araba Treaty was signed that Jordan has prosecuted an Israeli. Previously, Jordan deported Israelis, openly or in secret, to avoid tensions with its neighbour.

Another diplomatic spat ensued after Israel arrested two Jordanians, Abdel Rahman MirI and Hiba al Labadi, in August and September 2019, for suspected terrorist activity.

At the popular level, Jordanians have always considered Israel as a state enemy. However, there has been growing discontent since a shooting incident inside the Israeli embassy in the Jordanian capital Amman in July 2017, when an Israeli security guard killed two Jordanians, allegedly following a quarrel. The Jordanian government allowed the security guard to leave Jordan, eliciting further public anger.

In December 2019, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an opinion piece claiming the Israeli right is preparing to remove King Abdullah II. The claims are based on a series of articles by Israeli right-wing writers and government supporters published in previous weeks.

According to the piece, the plan includes the annexation of the Jordan Valley, which will lead to the annexation of the West Bank and the end of the peace agreement with Jordan. This, in turn, will lead to the downfall of Jordan’s royal family led by King Abdullah II, who is described as ‘a slave trying to break free from slavery, and a rude Arab who dared to raise his head’.

The article went on to say that the Israeli right is hoping for an Arab Spring in Jordan and demonstrations through which a coup can be carried out, allowing Israel to complete the annexation of the West Bank and establish a confederation between the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. This allegedly comes down to Israel’s frustration with Jordan’s custodianship of al-Aqsa Mosque and desire to change the status quo, demolish the mosque and build a Jewish temple in its place.

The article noted that the bottom line of the project would be to annex the West Bank without the inclusion of millions of Palestinians, who would move to a new Jordan without the royal family in power. This co-called transfer of Palestinians to Jordan has been a long-time wish of extreme right-wing Israeli parties.

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