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With Netanyahu gone; semblance of normality restored between Jordan, Israel

Jul 13,2021 - Last updated at Jul 13,2021

Jordan and Israel are hoping to reset ties after years of strained relations under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A month after a new coalition government was formed in Israel, ending 12 years of Netanyahu rule, the two sides took a number of initiatives to normalise relations. Last week, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi met with his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid on the Jordanian side of the border and reached an agreement for the sale of 50 million cubic metres of water from Israel to Jordan. Israel gives the Kingdom 30 million cubic metres annually under the 1994 peace treaty.

The two sides also agreed to increase Jordanian exports to the West Bank from $160 million to $700 million annually. “The Kingdom of Jordan is an important neighbour and partner,” Lapid said. “We will broaden economic cooperation for the good of the two countries.”

The Israeli media has reported that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has paid a secret visit to Amman last week to meet with His Majesty King Abdullah. While Jordan has not commented on this, such a meeting would be the first between leaders of the two countries in years. King Abdullah has rebuffed Netanyahu’s request for a meeting or even a telephone call. The King distrusted Netanyahu who has violated agreements with Amman, especially concerning Al Aqsa Mosque over which the King is a custodian. Under Netanyahu, relations between the two countries had soured reaching crisis level especially when an Israeli diplomat shot dead two Jordanians at the embassy compound and when an Israeli soldier killed a Jordanian judge at the Jordan River crossing point. No one was held accountable for both crimes by the Israeli side.

But ties got even worse under the Donald Trump administration. King Abdullah opposed Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the White House proposed “deal of the century” peace plan. Last year the king went as far as to question the fate of the peace treaty if Netanyahu carried out his threat to annex the Jordan Valley. Earlier this year, Amman was furious when Israel reneged on an agreement to allow Jordan’s Crown Prince to visit Al Aqsa. In retaliation, Jordan refused to give clearance for Netanyahu’s plane to land in Amman en route to the UAE.

Under pressure from the Joe Biden administration, Netanyahu approved the sale of an additional 50 million cubic meters of water to Amman, which is witnessing a severe water shortage. The election of Biden to the presidency was a relief for Jordan, which under Trump felt marginalised. As soon as Biden was elected, he received a call from the King in which he recommitted the US to the two-state solution; a matter of principle for Jordan.

With Netanyahu finally out, Jordan is hoping that ties with Israel can go back to normal. But that is easier said than done. The new coalition government in Israel is shaky and may not survive for long. Bennett is a hardliner and supports Jewish settler organisations as well as far right claims over Al Aqsa Mosque. In fact Israeli incursions of Al Aqsa have continued under the new government; an issue that is certain to trigger a harsh Jordanian response.

But even under Netanyahu, security and intelligence coordination between the two sides has not been affected. Netanyahu’s former coalition partner and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who is now part of the new coalition, has not been shy in declaring the importance of Jordan as a neighbor and ally. He has attacked Netanyahu for damaging bilateral relations and is seen as an important supporter of the stability of Jordan.

To the objection of a majority of Jordanians, Amman has become increasingly dependent on Israel for energy and water. Last year, Jordan began receiving Israeli natural gas under a $10 billion deal that has been opposed by parliament and most Jordanians. Still, Jordan had to cancel a project with Israel that would have provided energy and desalinated water from a canal linking the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. That agreement was never honoured by Israel.

King Abdullah will be the first Arab leader to be received by Biden next week. Bennett too will visit the White House before the end of this month. The Biden administration is prioritising the Jordanian-Israeli relationship as an important part of its Middle Eastern policy. More importantly, it is boosting Jordan’s role in the region especially with regard to supporting the Palestinian Authority, backing Mustafa Al Kadhimi’s government in Iraq and providing logistical support to US military in the region.

While ties with Israel can only improve after years of turbulence, trouble could be lurking ahead. Jordan cannot compromise on the two-state solution, nor can it accept Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem including the almost daily incursions at Al Aqsa Mosque and the move to Judaize the Holy City by pressuring Palestinians to leave. King Abdullah’s role in Jerusalem has been recognised by world leaders and future attacks on the city will force the Jordanian monarch to react.

But for the time being a semblance of normality has been restored between the two countries. That may not last for long and it will depend on the survival of the Israeli coalition government.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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