On Monday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II phoned Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu — in all likelihood Israel’s next prime minister — to congratulate him on his election triumph.
The very fact that the conversation happened at all is significant. This was not a pro forma chat between world leaders. While the often-fraught Jordan-Israel relationship is a vital national security concern for both parties, the personal relationship between the leaders has been marked by mistrust. Unless both men actively make the effort to maintain a positive working relationship, the acrimony that characterized ties the last time Netanyahu was in office will surely return.
At the same time, much has happened since the very public spats that marked the end of Netanyahu’s tenure, and both parties have reasons to avoid a replay of early 2021.
“Quite a lot of water has passed through the Jordan River since then,” quipped Joshua Krasna, Middle East expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.
Though Jordan would much prefer to continue to deal with Yair Lapid or Naftali Bennett than with a Netanyahu-led government that is expected to include far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir, the fundamentals of the relationship will not change, say Jordanian experts. Areas of deep disagreement will remain, and the imperatives for the sides to maintain a quiet but robust security relationship will keep ties from deteriorating entirely.
“This is business, it’s not peace,” said University of Jordan professor and Stimson Center fellow Amer Al Sabaileh.
An uneasy partnership
Israel views Jordan as a reliable buffer against hostile states to the east — once Iraq, now Iran. Israel’s border with Jordan, and the Israel-controlled frontier between the West Bank and Jordan, remained an oasis of quiet, even as Iran’s armed proxies entrenched themselves from Baghdad to Beirut, and jihadist groups grew in the Sinai Peninsula.
But there are reasons for Israel to fret about the long-term future of the regime. Frustration in the Jordanian population has simmered for years against the background of economic troubles and political repression. A weakened regime in Amman could create a power vacuum that would allow terrorist groups to establish a foothold all along Jordan’s border with Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian refugees in Jordan could inspire dangerous unrest in the West Bank, and far more radical elements could replace the Jordan-funded Islamic Waqf on the Temple Mount. Iran would also likely seek to take advantage of any chaos to open a new front against Israel.
Despite Amman’s security interests in cooperating with Israel, there has been ample apprehension in the Hashemite court, especially of Netanyahu, even before Abdullah ascended to the throne in 1999.
Less than two years prior, Netanyahu had ordered Mossad agents to assassinate Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal, who then had offices in Amman. The assassination failed, the agents were captured by Jordanian security forces, and an outraged King Hussein threatened to suspend the 1994 peace treaty if Netanyahu did not send an antidote to save Mashal’s life. It took US President Bill Clinton’s intervention to convince Netanyahu to do so and preserve the ties, but anger at Netanyahu for ordering a hit in Jordan’s capital remained.
In Netanyahu’s second, 12-year term, Amman found new reasons for frustration with the Israeli premier.
In 2014, Israeli soldiers shot dead Jordanian-Palestinian judge Raed Zeiter at the Allenby border crossing, saying that he attacked them. The incident enraged Jordanians, and while Netanyahu expressed regret over the incident, Israel declined to hand over footage, saying cameras at the site malfunctioned.
Three years later, another fatal shooting by an Israeli guard strained relations. A guard at the embassy in Amman shot and killed two Jordanian nationals, one of whom attacked the Israeli with a screwdriver. Netanyahu infuriated Abdullah by giving the guard a hero’s welcome upon his return to Israel.
Abdullah publicly opposed Netanyahu’s push to annex parts of the West Bank in 2020, warning it would “lead to a massive conflict” with his country. The prime minister later dropped the plan as part of the agreement to normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates.
Relations reached a new level of personal and public acrimony in early 2021, when Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah abruptly canceled a planned visit to the Temple Mount over a disagreement with Israeli authorities about his security detail.
A day later, Netanyahu was forced to cancel a planned whirlwind visit to the United Arab Emirates because Jordan delayed approving his flight path over the Hashemite kingdom.
Netanyahu then delayed approving a Jordanian request for more water from Israel.
The years of Jordanian frustration with Netanyahu boiled over, as officials in Amman appeared to accuse the then-premier of endangering the region for political reasons, and alleged that Israel had violated agreements with them.
“Over the years, the relationship was tested and King Abdullah lost trust completely in Netanyahu,” said Amman-based journalist and commentator Osama al Sharif. “He now sees him as a threat to the peace treaty.”
Jordan is certainly no easy partner for Israel. Antisemitism is rife in the kingdom, from “Mein Kampf” being sold on the streets to official textbooks promoting tropes about Jewish treachery.
“Editorial cartoons, articles and public statements by politicians sometimes depicted negative images of Jews and conflated anti-Israel sentiment with antisemitic sentiment,” read a 2017 State Department report.
Jewish tourists to the kingdom are routinely harassed for carrying religious items into the country, and are often barred from praying there.
Moreover, officials in Amman often make statements during unrest in Jerusalem that Israel sees as escalating tensions.
There was a marked improvement in ties once Bennett and Lapid replaced Netanyahu in June 2021. Shortly after coming into office, Foreign Minister Lapid met publicly with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi at a crossing point over the Jordan River. Bennett and Abdullah also met secretly at the crown palace in Amman, in the first summit between the countries’ leaders in over three years.
Other senior Israeli officials, including President Isaac Herzog and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, also met publicly with Abdullah in Amman.
“It was very obvious that there started to be public meetings, that even the Royal Court started to announce these meetings first,” said Sabaileh. “So it was obvious that a message was sent that, yes, we are willing, on the official and political level, to deal with Israel, but without Netanyahu.”
But even the obvious change in tone had a negligible effect on how the Jordanian public sees Israel — if they are paying attention at all.
“On a public level, Jordanians make no distinction between a government that includes religious Zionist extremists’ parties or [the] left-center,” said Farah Bdour, Programs Director at the Amman Center for Peace and Development. “They perceive any Israeli government, irrespective of its ideology, as a continuation of a Zionist project that violates human rights in the occupied territories, adopts hostile policies of expansionism, and erodes the status quo in Jerusalem.”
Sharif agreed that the Bennett-Lapid years had no impact on the Jordanian street: “On the popular level, there’s no difference. There’s no difference, and it makes no change for people. It’s still the problem of how people are seeing Israel.”
Polling leads to similar conclusions. A March 2022 Washington Institute study found that over 80 percent of Jordanians had a negative view of the Abraham Accords (for reference, fewer than 40% of Gazans expressed opposition to the normalization agreements). A whopping 87% of Jordanians disagreed with the idea that those who wanted business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so.
And there was ample opportunity for friction without Netanyahu in power. While Amman did not believe that Bennett would annex the Jordan Valley, Jordan still was vocal about Jews visiting the Temple Mount and warned publicly that Israel was undermining the status quo there and that Christianity in Jerusalem was “under fire.”
Still, said Sharif, Amman “understood that the anti-Netanyahu camp in Israel was fighting to win the November elections,” and was willing to cut it some slack.
With Netanyahu set to come back into power, Amman is likely watching closely for any signs that issues that worried them in the past — particularly the Temple Mount and the Jordan Valley — will reemerge.
Abdullah can breathe easy on the annexation issue, at least.
“One of [Netanyahu’s] great achievements is the Abraham Accords,” posited Krasna. “And he’s not going to risk his relationship with the Emiratis, or the Saudis for that matter, over this… It’s one of the few things he can do to cause trouble with his Abraham Accords allies.”
Jews visiting and praying at the Temple Mount complex, however, is more complicated.
“The Temple Mount is a very hot-button issue for his coalition partners,” Krasna said.
One of those partners will likely be Ben Gvir, whose background includes past convictions for supporting a Jewish terror group and incitement to racism. He is pushing to become public security minister, a role that carries with it authority over Israeli policy on the Temple Mount.
Ben Gvir has been a frequent visitor to the Temple Mount for many years, and other members of his party — and the Religious Zionism party, with which Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit is allied — are, like him, ardent advocates of expanding Jewish rights and Israeli control at the site.
But for Amman, there is a silver lining to a government that includes Ben Gvir, said Bdour. “Jordan is hoping that there will be an international outrage if he joins the cabinet — especially by the US and the EU — that Netanyahu’s extremist government may not last long.”
If Netanyahu decides to invest in ties with Israel’s neighbor to the east, he does have some options that will not create any coalition problems.
Earlier this month, Israel, Jordan and the UAE signed a renewed memorandum of understanding on a UAE-brokered deal signed a year ago to have Jordan provide solar energy to Israel, and Israel channel desalinated water to the Hashemite Kingdom.
“More projects like this where there is a healthy interdependence will enhance the climate of trust between parties,” said Bdour.
But other longstanding Jordanian conditions for improving the relationship are non-starters. Regardless of who sits in the prime minister’s office, Israel is not about to enter peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, nor will it ever recognize the Jordanian claim that it holds custodianship over Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.
At the same time, there are potential signposts that will indicate whether Jordan is interested in a more constructive bilateral relationship during the new Netanyahu tenure.
Thus far, Amman has been conspicuously absent from the Negev Forum that brings together Israel, the US, the Abraham Accords countries, and even Egypt, the other Arab country to sign a long-standing peace agreement with Israel before 2020. If Jordan’s foreign minister shows up at the 2023 gathering, it will show that Amman is aiming for a positive-sum relationship.
That outcome is unlikely, said Sabaileh, as Jordan sees the Abraham Accords as posing a potential threat to the Hashemite position in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s secret 2020 visit to Saudi Arabia raised concerns in Amman that the warming ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh could lead to Israel shifting the leading Muslim role on the Temple Mount from the Jordanians to the Saudis, possibly with US backing.
A year earlier, in 2019, Abdullah said he was under pressure to alter his country’s historic role on the Tempe Mount, but stated that he would not change his position.
The emerging government won’t make joining the forum any easier, argued Sharif. “Not with Netanyahu heading an extremist government that calls for expulsion of Arabs and annexation of more lands,” he said.
Ultimately, there is little desire on either side to thaw the cold peace.
Netanyahu wants to expand the circle of the Abraham Accords, something Bennett and Lapid could not do. Jordan will continue to be an important security partner, but has little to offer beyond that.
And while Abdullah will not like the makeup of the incoming government, he won’t be able to ignore it.
“Here we have to deal with it as reality,” said Sharif. “And in politics we don’t love and hate. In politics, we have to deal with the result that comes on the ground and we have to do our best to guarantee our interests.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.
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