Upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returning on June 18 from his first public visit to Jordan in four years, his office issued a truly minimalist statement on his meeting with King Abdullah II at the Royal Palace in Amman. The first sentence said the two had “discussed regional developments, advancing the peace process and bilateral relations,” its banality highlighting the sole and interesting message in the second sentence: “PM Netanyahu reiterated Israel's commitment to maintaining the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem.”
Of note, Netanyahu only committed to the status quo at the holy sites. He made no mention of a commitment to reining in the wave of construction in Jerusalem’s Holy Basin, where many holy sites of the three major monotheistic religions are located, and the city’s annexed Palestinian neighborhoods. As far as he is concerned, these are inseparable parts of what he calls a “united Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital.”
On the other hand, the Royal Palace statement underscored the need to define the meaning of “status quo” in the occupied territories. The king not only paid lip service to “advancing the peace process,” but according to the statement, he reaffirmed to his visitor that the only way to achieve peace and stability in the region is by reaching a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishing a Palestinian state along the June 4, 1967, borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The king further asserted that the issue of Jerusalem must be resolved in permanent status negotiations, since the holy city is key to achieving peace in the region. He made clear that Jordan would maintain its historic role in safeguarding the sites holy to Islam and Christianity in Jerusalem, in accordance with the Hashemite Custodianship, a legacy granted to the Jordanian royal family almost a century ago.
Shortly after Netanyahu’s departure, the king hosted Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special peace envoy to the Middle East. It was the duo’s first visit to Jordan since the controversial move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in mid-May. The king has made no bones about his displeasure with the American move. At a meeting in November with members of Congress, Abdullah warned that relocating the embassy at this stage would endanger the two-state solution and would be exploited by terror organizations to sow anger, frustration and despair, and to propagate their ideology.
Unlike Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has severed contacts with the Trump administration, the Jordanian monarch has said that criticism of the embassy move aside, there is no substitute for US involvement in the peace process. One can add that for Abdullah, there is no substitute for Jordan’s involvement in any deal on Jerusalem reached as part of this process. Here he relies on the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, which states, “Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem.” It goes on to say, “When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines.” In March 2013, Abdullah and Abbas signed an agreement on Jerusalem to the effect that Jordan would supervise the religious trust, the Waqf, and its assets according to Jordanian law, and the two sides would consult and coordinate their moves on issues pertaining to the city’s holy sites.
Trump, who soon after taking office pledged to achieve the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, is known for his view that “money talks” (not to mention a nuclear arsenal). Abdullah, however, has neither money nor nukes. Instead, he is saddled with a national debt of $40 billion and is scrounging grants and loans to cover it. Masses of Syrian refugees are eroding the already hobbled Jordanian economy and undercutting public trust in the regime. Saudi Arabia, Trump’s favorite rich country, is not keen on giving Jordan free lunches. The only currency Abdullah can offer the Saudis is joint custodianship of Jerusalem, which they covet.
While the relationship with Saudi Arabia is worth money, custody of the Al-Aqsa Mosque is worth its weight in gold. An erosion of Jordan’s status vis-a-vis Islam’s third holiest site is tantamount to destabilizing the rule of the Hashemite dynasty. With few options in sight, Abdullah recently cut a deal with the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, nemesis of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
For $500 million and jobs for several thousand Jordanian workers, Abdullah agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Qatar to the ambassadorial level, after downgrading them a year ago as part of the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar. The rapprochement between Amman and Doha is a thorn in Israel’s side. It is no secret that Qatar funds Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, organizations using violence and money in a bid to topple the Jordanian-Israeli-Palestinian status quo on Al-Aqsa.
A regional peace agreement that involves recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and the potential for internecine Sunni conflict, was nowhere on the horizon this week. Having recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it is incumbent upon Trump to offer the Palestinians and Jordanians some form of quid pro quo in the city. Netanyahu cannot do so. His right-wing coalition government would never go for it, even if Netanyahu wanted to. Also, Netanyahu and Abdullah are far more troubled by the Islamic Republic of Iran stirring up trouble in the region’s murky waters. Both countries agree on the risk of Iran exploiting the Syrian troop deployment in the south to infiltrate Jordan and threaten the monarchy and to grab positions along Israel’s eastern border to spread its tentacles toward Jerusalem.
The burden is on Netanyahu to show that he is indeed committed to maintaining the status quo at the holy places in Jerusalem as he declared after meeting with Jordan’s king this week. Primarily, he must rein in himself and his friends who have turned Jerusalem into a source of political capital and a burial site for the two-state vision.