Analysis: Are Israel and Jordan ready to turn over a new leaf?

Israel’s new government aims to mend relations with Jordan’s leadership through gestures like economic and water deals, but the Palestinian issue and Iran remain major obstacles.

By Israel Kasnett,

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has often described his country as being wedged between a “rock and a hard place,” referring to war-torn Iraq and the Israeli-controlled areas west of the Jordan River. And that may certainly have been true for many years, but now that the United States is withdrawing its troops from Iraq and Israel has a new government, Jordan finds itself facing changed realities along its borders.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met last week with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi at the King Hussein Bridge, where they announced new agreements on water and trade. It came as news leaked that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met secretly with Abdullah in Amman the week beforehand.

Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, believes that while Jordan and Israel could see an improvement in relations with the installation of Israel’s new government, “it is not realistic to expect drastic changes,” and the relationship “will improve slowly,” he says.

He notes that Israel and Jordan are bound by common enemies, such as the Palestinian national movement and fundamentalist terror groups from the east. The two countries are also bound by common interests, such as maintaining a secure and stable border, and adhering to the 1994 joint peace agreement.

For a number of years now, Jordan has been entrenched in crises ranging from a collapsing economy, water scarcity, political instability and even an alleged attempted coup. The king appears to be caught in a Catch-22. If he moves to improve relations with Israel, then he alienates his Palestinian citizens, who make up 70 percent of the country’s population, and risks further political strife. If he distances himself from Israel, he invites Iranian influence and risks compromising the security, economic and intelligence ties on which Jordan and Israel cooperate.

Read  Jordanian coffee shop mocks Holocaust with burning Star of David marshmallow drink

According to Inbar, Jordan provides Israel with strategic depth, and Israel provides Jordan with a security umbrella.

As such, while Jordan maintains a quiet eastern front for Israel and cooperates on security issues among others, Israel assists Jordan in many ways, including maintaining stability and providing it with water.

Under the newly signed deal, Israel will supply Jordan with an additional 65 million cubic yards of water in 2021, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The two countries also agreed to increase Jordanian exports to the Palestinian Authority from $160 million to $700 million.

Bilateral ties are not without problems

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday over the deal, saying Bennett “didn’t understand that when he gives him water, Abdullah is giving gas to Iran.”

But Bennett fired back, saying, “You say a leader of Israel must sometimes confront other nations for Israel’s interest. What is the Israeli interest for which MK Bibi Netanyahu destroyed our relationship with Jordan?”

Indeed, the bilateral relationship between Israel and Jordan is not without its problems.

The relationship between Netanyahu and Abdullah grew frosty in recent years, especially during the Trump administration when talk arose of Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and Israel’s ties with Arab Gulf states improved with the Abraham Accords.

As recently as March, Abdullah’s son, Prince Hussein bin Abdullah, canceled his scheduled visit to the Temple Mount due to a disagreement with Israeli authorities over his security detail.

The next day, Jordan prevented Netanyahu from crossing its airspace for a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates. The visit was allegedly canceled as a result.

And shortly after, Jordan published a statement denouncing visits by Jews on the Temple Mount.

“We are fixing the relationship,” said Bennett.

The United States also appears poised to reset its relationship with Jordan. Abdullah is scheduled to visit the White House on July 19, which the Biden administration hopes will “highlight the enduring and strategic partnership between the United States and Jordan.”

Inbar believes that Jordan is “playing a game, and we should learn to live with this game the way we did with Egypt. We need to be fully realistic about the limits of peace with Arab countries.”

Iranian influence in Jordan ‘shocking change’

According to Edy Cohen, a researcher in inter-Arab relations at the BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University, Jordan seems to be turning away from the Gulf states and towards Iran, which is not a good sign for Israel.

Cohen says Abdullah seems to believe that opening the door to Iran will rescue Jordan from its problems.

As proof, Cohen pointed to the June summit between Abdullah, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Baghdad, where they announced an agreement to cooperate on transporting Iraqi oil through pipelines from Iraq through Jordan to Egypt, from where it will be exported to Europe.

According to Cohen, this agreement is simply a fig leaf for Iranian influence. “Iraq is irrelevant, as it is controlled by Iran, so we are talking about Iranian oil,” he says.

In his view, the fact that Abdullah is bringing Iranian influence into Jordan is “a radical and shocking change.”

He also noted that Abdullah visited the grave of Jaffar Ibn Abu Taleb.

Taleb was Muhammad’s cousin, and his shrine is considered holy by the Shi’ite faith. But because the Sunni faith frowns upon visits to gravesites for worship, the practice is banned. King Abdullah’s visit is thus seen as an overture to Iran, according to Cohen.

Like Inbar, Cohen also referred to the “game” that Jordan plays. “Maybe it is just a game in order to blackmail the Gulf countries,” he states. The Jordanians are saying, ‘If you don’t give me what I want, I will turn to the Iranians.’ ”

“This is what happened,” adds Cohen. “Let’s wait a month and see if it actually happens.”

‘Anything that happens in Jerusalem affects Jordan’

Moshe Albo, an expert on the Middle East at the IDC Institute for Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, tells JNS that Jordan “understands that its stability is a strategic asset for Israel, and the last thing Israel wants is Iranian militias or Palestinian terror organizations on the border.”

Albo says the main sticking point between Israel and Jordan is the Palestinian issue: “Anything that happens in Jerusalem affects Jordan. Abdullah’s power derives from his Islamic heritage as a Hashemite and Jerusalem is part of it.”

Albo seems to agree with Inbar and Cohen that Jordan “plays a game” by which it feels it needs to criticize Israel to appease public opinion. “This criticism doesn’t always affect the strategic ties,” he says, noting that the Israel-Jordan relationship is a complicated game of joint interests, appeasing the Jordanian and Palestinian public, with Jordan posturing as the protector of the Palestinians and of the mosques on the Temple Mount.

Albo believes that the new Israeli government is “an opportunity to return to the strategic ties” with Jordan. “It’s important for the leaders to meet,” he says of Bennett’s recent secret meeting with Abdullah in Amman. “It’s important for the leadership to coordinate.”

He says the water deal “is an act of goodwill” on Israel’s part and a message to Jordanians that Israel is ready to improve ties “because we have joint interests, and we want to see the kingdom stable.”

The agreement, he concludes, “is good for Jordan, good for the Palestinians and good for Israel.”