Middle East

A Thaw In Israel’s Relations With Jordan

Two months after Jordanian parliamentarians unanimously passed a motion demanding the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador in Amman and the recall of Jordan’s envoy in Tel Aviv, Israel and Jordan have begun to take the first steps toward improving their contentious relationship.

The resolution was passed on May 17 in protest over Israeli “crimes” against Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. It won the support of all 130 deputies on the seventh day of Israel’s fourth cross-border war with Hamas in 13 years.

King Abdullah II, the Jordanian monarch, appeared to throw his weight behind the motion when he blamed Israel for the outbreak of the war.

“Israel’s provocative actions against the Palestinians led to the current escalation and added more tension to the region,” he said in a reference to unrest on the Temple Mount and the pending eviction of some Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem.

Bishr Khasawneh

After the passage of the resolution, Jordanian Prime Minister Bishr Khasawneh said his government would examine all its options and “rise to the challenge.” But much to the disappointment of the deputies, neither was the Israeli ambassador in Jordan expelled nor was the Jordanian envoy in Israel recalled.

Instead of downgrading bilateral relations with Israel, Jordan — which shares a 360-long border with the Jewish state — opted to upgrade them.

Its move was supported by the United States, which King Abdullah is due to visit on July 19. He is the first Arab leader to be invited to the White House by President Joe Biden.

Since the formation of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s new Israeli government in mid-June, Israel and Jordan have agreed to open a new page in their often mercurial relations. During the first week of July, Bennett secretly met King Abdullah at the royal palace in Amman. It was the first meeting between the countries’ leaders since the former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, conferred with King Abdullah in 2018.

Benny Gantz

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who met the king this past February, may have had a hand in preparing the ground for Bennett’s visit.

Shortly after Bennett flew back home, Israel’s alternate prime minister and foreign minister, Yair Lapid, met Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi at a border crossing point just inside Jordan. Lapid’s predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi, discussed a range of issues with Safadi in December 2020, the first time in years the Israeli and Jordanian foreign ministers had held face to face discussions.

Ayman Safadi

Lapid’s meeting with Safadi was productive.

They signed an agreement under which Israel will sell an additional 50 million cubic meters of water to Jordan this year. In the past several months, Jordan has been experiencing a severe water shortages due to poor rainfall.

As per its 1994 peace pact with Jordan, Israel is obliged to send its Arab neighbor 30 to 50 million cubic meters of water annually. Netanyahu had approved Jordan’s request, but only after some delay.

According to reports, Jordan still faces an immense water deficit. In 2013, Jordan signed an agreement with Israel to build a water conveyance system from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, a project that would have provided desalinated water and electricity to both sides. It did not materialize, and now Jordan is thinking of constructing a desalination plant in the Red Sea port of Aqaba.

Lapid and Safadi also agreed to permit Jordan to increase exports to the West Bank from $160 million to $700 million annually.

In the wake of their meeting, Lapid described Jordan as an “important partner,” promised to expand economic ties, and said he will try “to preserve and strengthen” mutual relations.

Yair Lapid

Striking a more pointed tone, Safadi spoke of the need for Israel to respect the “historical and legal status quo” of the Temple Mount, the “right of (Palestinian) families in Sheikh Jarrah to their homes,” and the imperative of achieving a two-state solution “as a way to achieve comprehensive peace.”

Isaac Herzog

On July 10, Israel’s newly elected president, Isaac Herzog, received a phone call from King Abdullah. In a statement, Herzog’s office said the king called to congratulate him and “expressed satisfaction with the recent return of diplomatic ties between the two countries to their proper track.” Herzog stressed the importance of Israel’s “strategic ties” with Jordan in terms of advancing peace and regional development, and added he would assist in strengthening them.

Israel’s relationship with Jordan was on a downward spiral during much of Netanyahu’s premiership from 2009 to 2021.

In a reflection of the sour atmosphere, the Jordanian government announced it would not renew 25-year leases in two small enclaves inside Jordan cultivated by Israeli farmers.

Netanyahu upset Jordan by distancing himself from a two-state solution during the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and continuing to expand settlements in the West Bank. King Abdullah, in turn, offended Trump by rejecting his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his much maligned plan for resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

King Abdullah II and Donald Trump at the White House

At one point last summer, Jordan threatened to review relations with Israel if, in accordance with Trump’s so-called “deal of the century,” it annexed the Jordan Valley and its network of settlements and outposts in the West Bank.

Things got stickier when Israel would not allow Jordan’s Crown Prince Hussein to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Temple Mount compound, which is under the custodianship of Jordan. Israel claimed he had reneged on a agreement regarding the size of his security detail and the weapons its members were allowed to carry.

By way of retaliation, Jordan temporarily denied Netanyahu permission to fly over Jordanian air space en route to the United Arab Emirates, which had recently signed a normalization accord with Israel.

The atmospherics between Israel and Jordan have certainly improved of late, but problems remain. Bennett, a religious nationalist, staunchly opposes Palestinian statehood and favors giving Palestinians a beefed-up version of autonomy. Bennett, too, is a fervent supporter of the settlement movement in the West Bank and advocates the annexation of major portions of it.

Jordan, about half of whose population is Palestinian, will have to work around these realities if it is to maintain cordial and mutually profitable relations with Israel in the near future and beyond.