Jerusalem’s Holy Sites
An Explosive Obstacle in Israeli-Jordanian Relations
By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi | January, 2023
The new Israeli government’s character is a cause of much concern in Jordan, as it could lead to a change in Israeli policy with regard to Jerusalem’s holy sites in such a manner as to harm Jordan’s status there. In an interview for CNN just before the new Israeli government was sworn in, King Abdullah II had voiced his apprehension. He claimed there is “concern” in the kingdom about those in Israel trying to push for changes to his custodianship of the Muslim and Christian holy sites. He added that Jordan has certain “red lines”, and would be willing to contend with those who attempt to cross them. Jordan’s strong condemnation of Minister Ben Gvir’s visit to Temple Mount, and its promotion of a discussion on the matter in the UN Security Council, reflect the Hashemite Kingdom’s tremendous sensitivity to any action taken by Israel in this regard.
The historical ties to Jerusalem’s holy sites
The Hashemite monarchy’s historical connection to Jerusalem dates back to the 1920s and 1930s. In those years, Jerusalem began to serve as a symbol and important source of legitimacy for the status and key role the kingdom sought to play in the Arab and Muslim world. Particularly after Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the father of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdullah I, had been expelled from Hejaz, and lost his status as keeper of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina. The Sharif was buried near the Al Aqsa Mosque in 1931. Two decades later, in 1951, King Abdullah I was assassinated at the entrance to the same mosque.
Throughout his years on the throne, and especially following the 1967 Six Day War, Jordanian King Hussein had fought to preserve the Hashemite monarchy’s status in the holy sites. For instance, despite the severing of Jordan’s administrative ties to the West Bank in 1988, King Hussein continued to nurture his special relationship with Jerusalem. He even succeeded, in the peace accords signed with Israel, to gain the latter’s recognition of the kingdom’s special role, as well as its willingness to prioritize the historical Jordanian position in the holy sites when negotiating the permanent status between Israel and the Palestinians. Although Israel’s recognition of the Jordanian role in the holy sites is not legally binding, the fact that it had consented to do so had validated King Hussein’s special status.
His son, King Abdullah II, has continued to maintain Jordanian status in the holy sites since assuming the throne as a significant aspect of establishing his rule and standing in both internal and regional arenas. Thus, in 2013, he signed an agreement with the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, recognizing the Hashemite Kingdom’s historical role in protecting Islam’s holy sites in Jerusalem. Moreover, as part of its capacity, Jordan continues to be responsible for the Waqf, funding the activity of hundreds of Waqf clerks and guards working in the compound. King Abdullah makes an effort to be publicly regarded as a faithful performer of his duties, never hesitating to criticize Israel harshly (for domestic purposes too) in view of steps it takes that he perceives as changing the status-quo in the holy compound. Furthermore, The Jordanian Central Bank has launched recently new banknotes, where on the highest denomination note of 50 dinars, King Abdullah appears next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Jordanian concerns – Domestic and regional considerations
It is not the first time, nor the last, probably, that King Abdullah is publicly stating that he views Jerusalem as a “red line”. However, a combination of circumstances make his warning more concrete this time. First and foremost, he is voicing genuine concern that the new Israeli government would lead to a significant change in its attitude toward the Hashemite Kingdom, including reviving old notions with regard to turning Jordan into the alternative homeland (al-Watan al-Badil) as a possible solution for the Palestinian problem. Israel’s conduct in the holy sites may also be altered so as to make King Abdullah seem incapable of protecting them, thereby setting the Jordanian streets ablaze, and leading the Arab world (particularly Saudi Arabia and Morocco) to demand that the matter of responsibility for these places be reconsidered. In addition, there is disquiet in the kingdom, expressed in recent weeks in riots following the rise in fuel prices, mostly led by the Bedouin tribes – who, traditionally, have been the monarchy’s allies. Under such circumstances, King Abdullah is far more sensitive to any Israeli action taken that could undermine his special position in Jerusalem, thereby projecting onto his image and standing both in his own country, and in the Arab world.
Implications and recommendations – Preserving Jordan as a strategic partner
The strategic partnership between Israel and Jordan forms a key aspect in Israel’s national security perception, as well as in the overall campaign against Iran and the threats posed by terrorism. Harming the internal stability in the Hashemite Kingdom could undermine Israel’s security architecture in a way that would require attention and resources to be diverted to the protection of Israel’s eastern border. Such a scenario would also project onto the IDF’s ability to prepare for the challenges it faces in other arenas.
Therefore, the Israeli government should prioritize ensuring that the Hashemite Kingdom’s monarchy remain stable. This goal should be pursued, first and foremost, by promoting a trust-building dialogue between Prime Minister Netanyahu and King Abdullah (particularly in view of their shared history), adopting a cautious approach, and avoiding taking any unilateral steps that could be detrimental to the monarchy’s status. Thus, the Israeli government should take action to regularly maintain its ties with Jordan, not only during crises, by deepening bilateral as well as multilateral collaborations in a wide range of areas, such as economics, energy, health, and technology. At the same time, Israel should promote, either directly or indirectly via its western and regional allies, the provision of extensive financial aid to the Hashemite Kingdom so as to enable it to address the internal challenges that it is facing.
Israel would have to exhibit extra caution with regard to its conduct in Jerusalem. Any steps perceived as changing the status-quo in the holy sites could have far-reaching implications on Israel’s strategic relations with Jordan, and even ignite, with the help of Hamas and others, a violent conflict that would be presented as a religious war, in such a way that would undermine the Hashemite Kingdom’s internal stability. Special importance should be attributed to improving coordination on working levels between the Jordanian Waqf clerks and Israeli security officials.
Moreover, in view of the reports on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pursuit of normalization with Saudi Arabia, Israel would do well to exhibit extra caution and avoid paying the Jerusalem currency as part of its offerings to the Saudi monarchy. Such a scenario, particularly in view of the historical rivalry over the role of keeper of Islam’s holy sites, could lead to a genuine rift in Israel’s relations with the Jordanian monarchy, and cause detriment to a wide range of collaborations that are crucial to Israel’s national security.
Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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