Editor’s Note: Daniel B. Shapiro is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Israel. He was US ambassador to Israel and the senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
There is no such thing as a well-timed tragedy. But a violent incident at the Israeli Embassy in Amman, Jordan, this week created an opening to solve one problem by linking it to another.
When Mohammed Al-Jawawda, a Jordanian worker, was called to a diplomatic residence to install furniture, he stabbed an Israeli security guard with a screwdriver, according to Jordan’s public security directorate. The guard fired in self-defense, killing Jawawda and another Jordanian man.
Jawawda’s family – who reject the accusation he stabbed the guard – and many Jordanian protesters called for the Israeli to be detained and tried, in violation of diplomatic protocols, which grant him immunity. The Israeli government understandably wanted to get its man home.
The background for the attack was the latest flare-up in tensions around the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem.
Nearly 10 days earlier, three Arab citizens of Israel killed two Israeli police officers with guns smuggled into the site. Israel responded by installing magnetometers to prevent a recurrence of such violence. Palestinians called the magnetometers a violation of the delicate status quo governing the site, setting off demonstrations (both peaceful and violent) and possibly inspiring a brutal killing of three family members at their Sabbath dinner in a West Bank settlement by a Palestinian.
Jordan, which governed Jerusalem’s Old City before 1967, still maintains a custodial role at Muslim holy sites in the city, which is acknowledged in its peace treaty with Israel. It is an important source of legitimacy for the Jordanian monarchy.
As the Jerusalem imbroglio and the embassy attack merged, astute Israeli, Jordanian and American officials put together an apparent deal: Jordan returned the Israeli guard, and Israel agreed to remove the magnetometers. Both Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the cover they needed to take an unpopular decision that short-circuited the crisis – at least for now.
Many Israeli commentators noted this arrangement had echoes of an Israeli-Jordanian deal that solved a different crisis 20 years ago during Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister. After Mossad – Israel’s intelligence agency – tried to poison Khaled Meshaal – the political leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas – on Jordanian soil, King Hussein refused to release the captured Israeli agents until Israel delivered an antidote for Meshaal and released the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison. The deal, once cut, quickly defused tensions between the two neighbors.
These episodes underscore the extraordinary sensitivity of Jordan’s position in matters that are ostensibly battles between Israel and the Palestinians.
On the one hand, since 1994 Israel and Jordan have maintained peaceful relations. They have grown increasingly close as Israel has quietly provided Jordan with extensive assistance to deal with the threats it faces from ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria.
Israeli security officials describe Jordan as providing Israel with hundreds of kilometers of strategic depth from threats farther to the east, and they consider the stability of the Jordanian kingdom among Israel’s highest national security priorities. Their partnership also serves the interests of the United States, an ally to both.
On the other hand, while Jordan’s King is increasingly open about these ties, which also bring Jordan economic benefits and access to critical water resources, he must proceed cautiously. Israel remains deeply unpopular with Jordan’s majority Palestinian-origin population. Together with domestic Islamist groups, the Jordanians are easily inflamed by any disturbances between Israel and Palestinians. Nothing is more dangerous in this regard than disputes around the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and the King cannot tolerate the instability such events create for long.
When matters reach a boiling point, diplomatic efforts, including those by the United States, tend to try to find a middle ground. In October 2015, I was part of Secretary of State John Kerry’s successful effort to defuse a similar episode with an Israeli-Jordanian agreement to install surveillance cameras at the site (although the agreement was never implemented).
In last week’s case, Israel’s decision to deploy magnetometers, which are used widely at public venues around the world – including religious sites – was a logical security response to the attack that killed the two police officers. But politically, any unilateral move at the site is so sensitive it is virtually untenable, absent any sign of Jordanian and Palestinian consent.
That was so, even when Israel’s case was strong that the move did not represent a change in the status quo and was a legitimate measure to prevent additional attacks. So there was a need for Israel to be seen as making a concession to Jordan, even as the Palestinians bore much of the responsibility for the violence that followed and did not deserve to have their tactics rewarded.
But awareness of Jordan’s sensitivities should not let Jordan off the hook for its own responsibilities to prevent violence at the Jerusalem holy sites.
The Muslim religious authorities who oversee the site, the Waqf, are appointed by Jordan. Living in East Jerusalem, they are naturally highly susceptible to the mood on the Palestinian street, which suspects Israel of trying to assert more control gradually over the site.
These suspicions are stoked by the campaign of some religious Jews in Israel, including some parliamentarians and ministers (although not supported by Netanyahu) to change the rules to permit Jewish prayer at the site, which would be a major change in the status quo.
But the Waqf has the ability – and crucially the religious legitimacy – to establish clear rules against Muslims smuggling weapons or conducting violence at the site. By enforcing those rules, and expelling violators, they will in turn make it easier for Israel to maintain security with a lighter hand, and push back on those on the Israeli side who are challenging the status quo.
To help manage these crises, which inevitably recur, the Trump administration will need to know not only how to cut elegant deals, like this week’s, but also to keep the pressure on allies such as Jordan to do all within their power to prevent and dampen the next round.