What happened: Speaking on the same day the UN Security Council debated US President Trump’s plan for Israel and the Palestinians, King Abdullah II of Jordan yesterday reiterated his “proud” role as the custodian of Jerusalem holy sites.
- In a speech delivered in Armenia during a state visit, King Abdullah II said the Hashemite Custodianship of Jerusalem’s Islamic and Christian holy sites is “a duty I am proud to carry”. Noting that Jerusalem is holy to followers of the three monotheistic faiths, the King said that: “All have a stake in safeguarding the spirituality, peace and coexistence that it symbolises.”
- He added: “We cannot let the holy city turn into a flashpoint for violence and division. So preserving the city’s identity and its legal status, as well as the historic status quo in relation to holy sites, Islamic and Christian alike, is going to be key. So we look to Christian leaders and friends like you and around the world to work with us in safeguarding Jerusalem as a unifying city of peace.” As a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, King Abdullah II plays a unique historical role as custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, guaranteed in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace agreement.
- Abdullah’s speech was likely a direct riposte to elements of the Trump plan that do not explicitly define Jordan’s historical status in Jerusalem. In the plan, sovereignty over the Old City and the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, would be assigned entirely to Israel, while Jerusalem’s Islamic Religious Endowments Authority, or Waqf, which is entirely funded by Jordan, would have authority over only the mosques. The plan guarantees freedom of worship for all three faiths in Jerusalem.
- Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, said that the plan’s solution for Jerusalem “would affect Jordan’s stability and is bound to have significant negative effects on the Jordan-Israel peace treaty”.
Context: Jordan has voiced its concern over the Trump plan’s potential impact on the country’s security.
- Shortly after the ceremony to launch the US plan on 28 January, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said: “The national interests of Jordan and its established and unwavering positions and principles toward the Palestinian issue governs the way the government deals with all proposals and initiatives aimed at resolving the conflict.”
- A new report by Bernard Avishai in The New Yorker argues that the plan’s most troubling aspect for Jordan is the disposition of lands to Israel, potentially before the establishment of a Palestinian state. Jordan fears that, were Israel to unilaterally apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and its settlements in the West Bank, it would cause major unrest in Jordan where an estimated 50 per cent of the population consider themselves Palestinian.
- The Trump plan was published at a time when Jordan-Israel relations are at a historic low point. Last year, King Abdullah decided not to renew the 25 year lease to Israel of two areas of land in the Arava that Israel ceded to Jordan in the 1994 peace treaty. Eighty-seven Jordanian MPs signed a petition urging an end to the lease. This was preceded by the 2017 incident in the Israeli embassy in Amman, where an Israeli security officer shot and killed a young Jordanian carpenter who had stabbed him with a screwdriver. More recently, the Jordanian Government voted against the King’s agreement to buy 45bn cubic meters of natural gas from Israel’s new Mediterranean fields.
- According to Avishai, King Abdullah is also coming under increasing pressure due to a failing economy. Almost 40 per cent of the workforce is employed either for the government or in education; only about 10 per cent work in manufacturing and the average annual income is less than $5,000.
- Over the past two years demonstrations have grown against state corruption, which forced Abdullah to replace his Prime Minister, as well as against the austerity measures the King introduced in 2016. Some protests have demanded political reform and limits on the King’s powers.
Looking ahead: The key issue now for Jordan is how it will react if Israel applies sovereignty over the settlements and the Jordan Valley in the future.
- Last September, King Abdullah warned that such a move would have “a major impact on the Israeli-Jordanian relationship and also on the Egyptian-Israeli relationship”. It is likely that the US put the brakes on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s moves to apply sovereignty before the election because of concerns about the impact on Jordan.
- A collapse or cancellation of the Jordan-Israel peace agreement would also have major implications for Israeli security. Any deterioration in the Kingdom could open the door for pro-Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria to enter the country and launch attacks against Israel from across the Jordan River.