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Israel and Jordan: The Middle East’s Odd Couple

The U.S. hopes to regain regional stability by boosting ties between the two allies amid ongoing violence.

Teresa Welsh
SOURCEU.S. News and World Report

In a region characterized by conflict, two countries – Israel and Jordan – have found themselves in a rare partnership to safeguard security and strategic interests and become one another’s most important regional allies in a perpetually volatile Middle East. Yet even though a secure Israel is in Jordan’s interest, that country doesn’t have the diplomatic heft to take the leading role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks previously assumed by Egypt.

In an attempt to keep the increasingly important relationship stable, Secretary of State John Kerry met Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman, Jordan to discuss ways to quell the recent widespread violence in Israel between Jews and Palestinians. Despite the close physical proximity of the two capitals, Netanyahu and Abdullah don’t meet frequently in person.

Jordan, a moderate Arab nation and staunch Israeli ally, signaled its displeasure with recent Israeli action by withdrawing its ambassador last week over disagreements at a holy site in Jerusalem claimed by both Jews and Muslims. Jordan acts as caretaker for the site, home to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, as a part of a peace agreement signed with Israel in 1994.

“There was speculation that [the withdrawl] would lead to severing of Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement. I don’t think we were anywhere near that,” Neri Zilber, a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute, says from Jerusalem. “But if the situation had escalated in Jerusalem, Jordan, along with many other Arab states, would have taken a much stronger position against Israel.”

The site was previously home to Jewish temples, but Israel does not currently allow Jewish prayer there in an attempt to prevent religious clashes over use of the location. Violence has spurred a series of attacks around the country on both Israelis and Palestinians, resulting in several casualties. On Wednesday, Palestinians blamed Jewish extremists for the torching of a mosque in the West Bank and accused Jews of trying to win control of Muslim holy sites.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said following Thursday’s meeting that Jordan took the step of withdrawing its ambassador to send a “very clear signal” to Israel that its actions at the holy site were “unacceptable to Jordan.” He said the country isn’t yet ready to restore the ambassador and will wait to see if deescalation measures agreed to by Netanyahu were properly implemented.

Jordan and Israel warred for decades, with Israel taking control of the West Bank, which had previously belonged to Jordan, in the Six-Day War of 1967. Relations before the signing of a 1994 peace treaty were not formalized, but despite outward violence, Jordanian Hashemite kings had strong ties to Jewish leaders through secret backchannels.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S.-Middle East negotiator who is now a vice president at the Wilson Center, says that agreement was based on fundamental self-interest for both countries.

“Unlike any relationship that the Israelis have with any of their neighbors — the Lebanese, the Egyptians, certainly the Palestinians, the Syrians — the Jordanian-Israeli relationship over time has been the most practical and the most functional,” Miller says.

Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel. Zilber says that despite this, other countries in the region do communicate with the Jewish nation using “secret or not-so-secret intelligence cooperation backchannels.”

Israel and Jordan both share their longest border with one another, and security and intelligence cooperation between them is extensive. Jordan serves to buffer Israel from the radical Islamic nations to the east, as well as the growing threat from the Islamic State group in Syria, a country with which both Israel and Jordan share borders. While neither country has military bases in the other, they have also coordinated against al-Nusra where the borders of the three countries meet.

“There is an unwritten, unspoken kind of Israeli commitment that if Jordan were ever in serious trouble, and now we’re referring to [the Islamic State group] and spillover from Syria, that Israel at a certain point would take action and come to Jordan’s aid,” Zilber says. “Jordan is a massive strategic asset to Israel.”

The closeness of the two Middle Eastern countries also assures that Jordan will be recipient of U.S. military aid, because a stable Jordan helps ensure a stable Israel.

Gabe Scheinmann, director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center, says aid to the two countries are “very much intertwined.”

The countries are also economically tied, especially in the West Bank. Jordan doesn’t have any oil, so it heavily relies on Israeli gas exports for energy. Israel also pumps billions of gallons of fresh water into Jordan.

Israel’s closest Arab ally supports a two-state solution for Israeli-Palestinian peace, with Jordan publicly encouraging both parties to pursue such a resolution. The country has historically had strained relations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization led by Mahmoud Abbas, who has a home and spends a significant amount of time in Jordan. Jordan also gives Palestinian refugees citizenship, meaning a large portion of the 6 million-person nation are actually of Palestinian descent, rather than Jordanian.

But despite its high stake in stability to its west, Jordan is unlikely to take on an outsized role in coordinating peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Egypt historically played a large role brokering talks but it has been distracted by its own domestic unrest over the past several years. Jordan doesn’t have the clout to fill the void.

“They’re not marginal to this but they never had the kind of influence with the Palestinians that the Egyptians did, for example. They can’t provide the money,” Miller says. “I think that Jordan is a necessary but not sufficient piece of a regional equation. If you want heft you look to the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Moroccans.”

The latest round of peace talks fell apart in April, despite the best effort of Kerry. This week’s tension and damage done during the summer’s Gaza war mean it’s extremely unlikely negotiations will be resumed in the near future. Abbas was also in Jordan to meet with Kerry, but he did not meet with Netanyahu. Kerry said Thursday “it just isn’t yet the right moment for the two sides to really come together at this instant. “

Scheinmann says Jordan is also wary of taking on too large of a role in the process and assuming responsibility were talks to collapse.

“The worst thing Jordan could do would be get blamed by both sides for something that happened,” Scheinmann says. “If Jordan were to take a larger lead on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and they were to fall apart … it doesn’t want to get blamed by both sides simultaneously.”

Yet even if the country won’t play a dominant role in pushing for a continued peace process, Jordan will remain a key strategic ally for Israel.

“Jordan often gets overlooked honestly because it’s small state, because it doesn’t have oil, because it’s not actively at war. But it’s a state that has been ravaged by swings of what goes on in the region,” Scheinmann says. “It’s an incredibly important state from Israel’s perspective, it’s an incredibly important state from the United States’ perspective. It honestly gets overlooked a lot and it shouldn’t.”