King Abdullah the Irrelevant
A diplomatic crisis reflects the changing nature of Israeli-Jordanian relations.
According to media reports in Israel and the United States, on March 11 Israel’s ties with Jordan stood on the brink of the abyss. But then, five to 10 minutes passed and everything went back to normal.
Last week’s fleeting yet existential crisis of relations with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan disappeared without a trace. But before we forget all about it, it is important to consider what happened in some depth. Doing so will help us to understand the nature of Israel’s relations with Jordan in the era of the Abraham Accords, which all but ended the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Two events fomented the crisis. First, on March 10, Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein was supposed to visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Arrangements for the visit, including those related to Hussein’s security detail, were assiduously discussed and agreed upon by Israeli and Jordanian officials ahead of time. But as became clear when Hussein and his entourage arrived at the Allenby Bridge Crossing to enter Israel, the Jordanians decided to ignore the agreements. Hussein was accompanied by a personal security force much larger and better armed than anything Israel had agreed to.
Israeli officials at Allenby Bridge reasonably asked that in keeping with the agreement, the prince reduce the size of his security detail. Rather than respect Israel’s position, Hussein went home in a huff. His dad, King Abdullah II, was reportedly enraged when he heard that Israel refused to allow his son to treat its officials and the agreement that had been reached with contempt.
The following day, Abdullah used Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned flight to Abu Dhabi to exact his revenge. Netanyahu was scheduled to fly to Amman on the morning of March 12 and then board a private plane that United Arab Emirates leader Crowned Prince Mohamed bin Zayed was sending to bring him to Abu Dhabi. The Jordanians delayed approving Netanyahu’s flight plans for several hours and so forced the premier to cancel his trip.
Netanyahu-hating commentators in the Israeli media along with Netanyahu’s political rival Defense Minister Benny Gantz were quick to use the canceled trip, and the unpleasantness at Allenby Bridge, to proclaim that through his disrespectful treatment of the Jordanians, Netanyahu had managed to undermine and endanger the peace deals with both Jordan and the UAE.
Much to the dismay of the chattering classes and Netanyahu’s political rivals, later the same day Netanyahu held a press conference where he announced that while it was true that he was compelled to delay his trip due to Jordanian foot-dragging, he would travel to the UAE in the near future. And by the way, he said, the UAE is planning to invest $10 billion in the Israeli economy.
When the media accused Netanyahu of lying, the UAE also announced the $10 billion investment fund. And on Tuesday, Israel Hayom reported that the sides were working to set up a new day for the visit, ahead of this week’s elections.
Hysterical now, the media horde insisted Netanyahu was lying. Reporters contacted the UAE and asked why they were interfering in the elections and whether they were serious about the $10 billion investment. Stunned UAE officials denied they were interfering in the elections, said that of course, the peace is between the countries and nations and not merely between the leaders and that the investment fund was on the table but hadn’t been concluded.
Aha! Screamed the commentators, Netanyahu lied and the peace is in danger.
The big “achievement” of the anti-Netanyahu commentators, apparently, has been to delay Netanyahu’s trip until after the elections. But despite their efforts to undermine the actual peace agreement, whether Netanyahu travels before the election or after them, and whether the investment and trade deal is concluded before or after the polls close is immaterial.
The economic and strategic ties between Israel and its Abraham Accord partners, as well as Saudi Arabia, are expanding faster than anyone could have imagined. And the burgeoning economic and strategic ties are bringing about Israel’s full and likely irreversible integration in the region in a way that transforms the Middle East.
This then brings us back to King Abdullah and his decision to prevent Netanyahu’s trip to Abu Dhabi last week. If the raging success of Netanyahu’s regional diplomacy causes ideological and political distress to Israel’s rabidly political and ideological media, it presents a strategic challenge to Jordan and is a source of existential angst for the Hashemite regime.
The Hashemite royal house in Jordan is an artifact of Britain’s colonial regime in the region a century ago. The Hashemites are a small minority of Jordan’s population. And the country they control is poor, and resource-strapped. The principal source of the longevity of the Hashemite regime is Israel. Jordan is located between Israel and Iraq and shares a border with Israel and Syria. Its position has long made it a buffer state. And its (relative) moderation has served as a deterrent to Iraqi and Syrian aggression against Israel.
As a consequence, Israelis—particularly Israeli military leaders—long viewed the Hashemite Kingdom as indispensable.
As things stand today, the threat of war between Iraq or Syria (or both) and Israel has never been lower. Both Iraq and Syria are failed states at advanced levels of decomposition. And as a result, today, Jordan’s importance as a buffer state has never been lower.
So too, for many years, Jordan, which has long owed its financial survival to support from and the remittances of Jordanian workers in the Gulf states, served as a bridge between Israel and those states. It’s been almost a decade since Jordan has been asked to serve in that capacity.
The Obama administration’s decision to realign the U.S. Middle East alliance structure towards Iran and away from Israel and America’s traditional Arab allies spooked the Emiratis, Egyptians and the Saudis sufficiently to convince them to develop defense ties with Israel. Once that happened, Jordan, which was close to the Obama administration, became more of a nuisance than a bridge.
Jordan’s transformation into an irrelevance was on display last on March 12. By blocking Netanyahu’s flight to the UAE, Abdullah showed that far from being a bridge, he is an obstacle to the Gulf States’ ties with Israel. So too, Netanyahu’s announcement—subsequently repeated by the UAE—that the Emirates intend to invest $10 billion in Israel showed that Abdullah’s ability to serve either as a bridge or an obstacle to relations is a mirage.
No one cares what Jordan does.
This then brings us to the Palestinians. Aside from the PLO and its Palestinian Authority, the greatest Arab champion of the Palestinian veto over Arab-Israeli peace has been King Abdullah. Whereas Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi welcomed the Abraham Accords, Abdullah joined Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in condemning them. So too, whereas the UAE and Bahrain sent their ambassadors to the White House to celebrate when then-President Donald Trump presented his peace plan, which included Israeli sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria, Abdullah condemned the plan.
As Israel moved forward with its plan to apply its sovereignty to those areas of Judea and Samaria in accordance with the Trump plan, Abdullah let it be known that such an Israeli-U.S. move would cause him to abrogate Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel.
One of the regional developments that keep Abdullah up at night is the still-unofficial alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Abdullah lives in fear that in exchange for Saudi Arabia’s official normalization of ties, Israel will provide the Saudis with an official position in managing the mosques on the Temple Mount at Jordan’s expense. For its part, as the current custodian of the mosques on the Temple Mount, Jordan has torpedoed every Israeli effort to stabilize the situation at the holy site.
Crown Prince Hussein’s planned visit was geared primarily towards demonstrating Jordanian control over the site. The apparent hope was that by presenting himself as the “owner” of the holy place, Hussein would harm Israeli-Saudi relations. Morocco was also a consideration. Rabat holds the Arab League’s Jerusalem portfolio, and as a member of the Abraham Accords, is also eager to undercut Jordan’s position at al-Aqsa Mosque.
Jordan’s choice between two paths
Jordan’s effective irrelevance in a post-Arab-Israeli-conflict Middle East, where Abraham Accord members and supporters dominate the economic and strategic landscape, presents Jordan with a choice between two paths.
It can continue on as it has for the past several decades. It can continue to refuse to normalize its relations with Israel and insist that all normalization must be contingent on an Israeli surrender of Judea, Samaria, and northern, eastern and southern Jerusalem—including the Temple Mount. If it does this, it will continue to stand at the sidelines—in crushing poverty—as Israel and other Arab states gallop towards unprecedented prosperity and joint development.
To get a sense of the costs of maintaining such a posture, whereas the UAE intends to invest $10 billion in Israel, Jordan’s entire annual budget is a mere $11 billion. With a debt to GDP ratio of over a hundred percent and a 38 percent increase in the number of Jordanians living in poverty over the past year, the economic dimensions of this choice are dizzying.
On the other hand, maintaining its rejectionist and obstructionist stance will maintain the kingdom’s standing as the darling of Europe, the American left and the Israeli media.
Abdullah’s second option is to follow Egyptian President el-Sissi’s lead and become an adjunct member of the Abraham Accords. Among other things, he can agree to a major expansion of the industrial parks on both sides of the Jordan River, in keeping with the Trump vision for economic peace. Such a move would, in short order, create hundreds of thousands of jobs for Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis and draw billions of dollars in foreign investment to all sides.
As for the Palestinians, Abdullah can continue to blindly support the PLO and follow it down its road to nowhere; he can reduce his support for the PLO to lip service as el-Sisi has done; or he can follow in his great-grandfather King Abdullah’s footsteps and declare that Jordan, with its large Palestinian majority, is Palestine and that he is the sovereign of the Palestinians.
By choosing the first option, Abdullah will ensure Jordan’s economic failure and strategic irrelevance. Choosing either the second or third options will save Jordan’s economy. If Abdullah chooses the third option he will save Jordan’s economy and reinstate its strategic importance and national vitality.
Given Abdullah’s hostile and irritating behavior last week, there is no reason to be optimistic about the possibility of him seizing the opportunity to save Jordan’s economy and become a relevant and productive strategic partner. But in light of his inability to harm Israel in any significant fashion, Israel has little reason to be concerned about the path he chooses to take.
Caroline Glick is an award-winning columnist and author of “The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East.”