January 19, 2018 — Jerusalem
By Eran Lerman
Israel's decision to accept Jordan's demands for apology and compensation, so as to settle the diplomatic crisis between the two countries and secure the reopening of the Embassy in Amman, must be seen in the context of broader regional dynamics.
Seven years, almost to the day, since the eruption of the raging regional tumult (which some naïve souls still call "the Arab Spring"), the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan remains an island of stability in the eye of the storm – indeed, of several storms sweeping seemingly stronger states into destruction.
There are challenges all around. Syria still burns. Iraq is still torn. To the south, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a dramatic transition. Tensions are rising along Israel's borders, with Hamas tunnels being demolished one by one. Mahmud Abbas has just thrown a childish tantrum, trashing Jewish history along with the Trump Administration's policies. Turkey, under Erdogan, seeks to undermine Jordan's (and Israel's) position in Jerusalem. Above all, the Iranian regime – which for the time being, seems to celebrate its repression of the protesters – seeks to activate again a front of "resistance" against Israel, which implies putting Jordan in its crosshairs.
Amidst all this, King Abdallah II has been able to keep his ship of state on an even keel, despite the influx of Syrian refugees – some say a million, some say many more – and despite the Kingdom's inherent social and political tensions between "East Bankers" (tribal elements) vs. a majority of Palestinian origins. This achievement, vital to regional stability and to Israel's security, should not be taken for granted. This is the time to set aside points of disagreement and to recommit, Americans and Israelis alike, to the survival, stability and relative prosperity of Jordan. The alternatives are unthinkable.
The main threat is not yet openly stated, but can be deduced – once again – from Iran's revolutionary regional ambitions, which had indeed been at the focus of recent U.S. and Israeli messages of warning to the rest of the world. A recent MEMRI study has confirmed that Iran's leader, and the IRGC acting on his behalf, were busy (until the outbreak of protest drew their attention back home) trying to re-unite the various anti-Israeli elements of the region into an effective alliance of "muqawamah" (resistance) forces. This would entail, among other efforts, the patching up of relations between Hamas, which had taken a Muslim Brotherhood Sunni stand against Assad, and Hezbollah, which stood and fought shoulder to shoulder with the murderous Syrian regime. It involves an Iranian-inspired attempt by Palestinian Islamic jihad in Gaza to slowly escalate the tension by sporadic rocket fire into Israel.
At the same time, as emerges from overt Iranian statements, it goes back to Khamenei’s tweet in November 2014, recently repeated, about "arming the West Bank" so it can become a militarized zone like Gaza, capable of raining death and destruction on Israeli population centers at close range. To be able to do so, geography dictates that the Iranians must first turn Jordan into an easy conduit, the way Sinai was before President Sisi began a serious clampdown on the flow of arms (and goods) through Egyptian territory.
The first step, already happening, would be to clear the Syrian side of the Golan Heights of all anti-Assad resistance. The second, which is what Israel has been talking to the Russians about, is the establishment of a strong Hezbollah/IRGC presence on the border with Jordan; then would come destabilization of the Kingdom and the placement of areas adjacent to the West Bank under Iranian/Hezbollah control. The final step would be a campaign of penetration through the Jordan valley not unlike what Israel faced in the late 1960s, but this time with Islamists on the ground and Iran in the background, not pseudo-Marxist terrorists backed by Soviet clients.
In order to prevent this nightmarish scenario from being realized, the U.S., Russia, and Jordan signed a memorandum of understanding in November 2017 enlarging upon earlier understandings reached in July. With Israel indirectly involved – and not entirely pleased with the outcome – this was meant to ensure that a certain buffer would remain in place even if the Syrian war winds down and the regime reasserts full control up to the border. The underlying reason for this agreement is the Russian realization that allowing Assad to become a tool of Iranian designs would put him at serious risk. The Russians have a healthy respect for Israeli military capabilities, which Israel takes care to maintain by word and deed alike. Still, it is Jordan that serves as the operational edge of this effort, and the continued ability of the Kingdom – through its military forces and intelligence services, which have always been among the best in the region – to keep itself safe from such schemes will remain a vital Israeli and American interest.
Internally, the ruling family has recently gone through a minor upheaval. The king abruptly ended the military service of his brothers, Princes Faysal and Ali, as well as of his cousin, Prince Talal – presumably paving the way for the rapid rise of his son, and now heir, Prince Hussein. This can be read as show of force – some would say, taking a leaf from Muhammad bin Salman's purges of the family in Saudi Arabia – but it remains to be seen what effect this dismissal may have on military morale and on the quality of command in the field (Talal was for a long time in charge of the special forces, Jordan's best).
This is the reason why Israel chose to go the extra mile and agree to Jordanian demands and end the crisis that began last July. The situation was increasingly problematic. The formal status of relations has not changed – and Walid Obeidat (a personal friend) continued to do stellar work as Jordan's Ambassador in Israel – but there has been no Israeli Ambassador in Amman since July, and Einat Schlein (an equally talented diplomat) was not able to fulfill her duties. This is the result of what in tennis would be called an "unforced error" by PM Netanyahu. Having secured the safe passage to Israel of the security guard who shot to death his young Jordanian assailant, and inadvertently also killed his landlord who was present at the scene, Netanyahu could not resist the PR temptation to give him a hug in public. The Jordanians exploded at this "populist" gesture, and the embassy team was not allowed to return.
Efforts to bring about a solution, led by the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, made progress (there was even talk of appointing a senior figure, MG res. Amos Gilad, as ambassador), but they were put on hold for a while in the wake of Trump's declaration on Jerusalem. Finally, on January 18, an agreement was reached reminiscent of the deal with Turkey in 2016. Israel offered an apology (and promised legal proceedings on the shooting case), as well as compensation for the families of the two men killed (and to the family of a Jordanian judge killed in an incident at the Allenby bridge four years ago). Since one of the dead in Amman had attacked the security guard – stabbing him with a screwdriver – and the Judge, Ra'id Zu'aytar, was emotionally distraught and apparently had tried to snatch a soldier's gun, these demands were of questionable justification; but the need to bring the relationship back to normal was decisive.
This will not end the tensions, however. Jordan keeps taking anti-Israeli positions in international fora such as UNESCO, and in response, angry Israeli voices are once again rising, advocating "Jordan is Palestine" and arguing that the cost of friendship with the Hashemites is too high. It did not help that the Jordanian courts had granted the wish of a mass murderer, Ahlam Tamimi – responsible for the Sbarro restaurant bombing in Jerusalem in 2001 – to deny Israel's demand that she should be handed over. Such attitudes, long dormant, have resurfaced among some Israelis. They may become more widespread unless relations are brought back to normal and Jordan lends a more attentive ear to Israeli concerns.
The U.S., as a major donor, or the leaders of Greece and Cyprus, who just held a trilateral summit with King Abdallah in Nicosia, could and should play a role in promoting closer bilateral and multilateral relations, bringing the two countries together. Despite the anger and the doubts, Israel and Jordan need each other.
Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.