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Netanyahu and Abdullah meet in Jordan, signaling they want to move past tensions

Prime minister makes unpublicized visit to Amman, his first since 2018, amid unexpected attempts by kingdom to maintain positive ties

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Jordan's King Abdullah II, left, at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan, on January 16, 2014. (AP/Yousef Allan, Jordanian Royal Palace)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Jordan's King Abdullah II, left, at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan, on January 16, 2014. (AP/Yousef Allan, Jordanian Royal Palace)

For the first time in over four years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Jordan Tuesday to meet King Abdullah II, the premier’s office announced after the conclusion of the visit.

According to the statement, the two leaders discussed “strategic, security, and economic cooperation” during the meeting, the first between the leaders in over four years. They also spoke about the importance of the alliance between the countries.

The visit seemingly indicates that both sides are interested in avoiding the public fights that marked the relationship last time Netanyahu was in office.

It was Netanyahu’s first known visit to Amman since a secret trip in 2018, amid the Donald Trump administration’s attempt to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Jordanians in their readout focused “on the need to respect the historical and legal status quo at the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif and not to harm it.”

The admonition came weeks after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s first visit to the Temple Mount in office, which led to furious condemnations from the Arab world. Jordan summoned Israel’s ambassador for a dressing-down.

Ahead of Ben Gvir’s tour, Amman had signaled that a visit by the minister or moves violating the status quo would have far-reaching consequences, including the possibility of a diplomatic downgrade.

Jewish worshippers visit the Temple Mount at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

During the meeting with Netanyahu, Abdullah also underscored his support for a two-state solution guaranteeing a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Abdullah was joined by his Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Chief of Staff Jaafar Haasan, and intelligence chief Ahmed Hosni.

The neighbors, which fought each other in major wars while also maintaining covert contacts, signed a peace treaty in 1994.

The surprise meeting is notable in light of the fraught history between the two leaders.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi addresses a panel at the Doha Forum in Qatar’s capital on March 26, 2022. (Ammar Abd Rabbo/MOFA/Doha Forum/AFP)

During Netanyahu’s last stint as premier from 2009 to 2021, ties between Jerusalem and Amman deteriorated markedly, with Abdullah saying in 2019 that relations were “at an all-time low” after a series of incidents that prompted Jordan to recall its ambassador to Israel.

Observers have fully expected a worsening of Israel-Jordan relations after frosty ties thawed out during the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid administration. Any significant deterioration would complicate Netanyahu’s relationship with US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has prioritized its ties with Jordan, would make expanding the Abraham Accords more difficult, and could be a source of real unrest in Jerusalem.

Jordan was already nervous over changes to the Temple Mount during Netanyahu’s previous tenure. His 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 site 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 Temple Mount, but stated that he wouldn’t change his position.

Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy has enjoyed a unique role at the holy site — which it, though not Israel, calls a “custodianship” — since 1924.

Jordanian Ambassador to Israel Ghassan Majali (L) argues with an Israeli police officer on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on January 17, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Israel captured the Temple Mount and Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, almost two decades after Amman conquered it during the War of Independence of 1948. However, Israel allowed the Jordanian Waqf to continue to maintain religious authority atop the mount.

Joshua Krasna, Middle East expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, called Jordan’s role on the Temple Mount a “keystone” of Hashemite legitimacy.

After another recent spat on the Temple Mount — in which Jordan’s ambassador to Israel was briefly delayed by police while visiting the site — Amman showed an eagerness to get past the tensions.

A letter of rebuke that Jordan’s Foreign Ministry handed to Israeli Ambassador Eitan Surkis was measured and showed a desire to move on, said an Israeli official.

“Jordan expressed its anger in the most diplomatic way allowed,” said Amman-based journalist and commentator Osama Al Sharif. “But there is a feeling that it also does not want things to get out of hand.”

Netanyahu’s predecessor Lapid met Abdullah in Jordan and at the United Nations. Bennett also met with the Jordanian king in Amman.

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