Netanyahu vows to maintain Temple Mount status quo in meeting with Jordanian king

Hours-long visit also attended by Shin Bet head, Jordanian counterpart to discuss possible unrest on site ahead of Ramadan in March

File: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah II listen as President Barack Obama, not pictured, speaks on the Middle East peace negotiations in the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010. Netanyahu sat next to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, on his right, while the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sat next to the Jordanian king, to his left. (AP/Susan Walsh)
File: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah II listen as President Barack Obama, not pictured, speaks on the Middle East peace negotiations in the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010. Netanyahu sat next to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, on his right, while the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sat next to the Jordanian king, to his left. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly promised King Abdullah II that the status quo on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem will be preserved during a previously unannounced meeting between the two in Jordan on Tuesday.

According to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu made the promise more than once during the hours-long visit, and also gave assurances that Israel would protect the authority of the Islamic Waqf — a Jordanian-appointed council that administers the Temple Mount. The site is the holiest site for Jews, as the location of two biblical temples, while the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Mount is the third holiest shrine in Islam, turning the area into a major flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Under an arrangement that has prevailed for decades under Jordan’s custodianship, Jews and other non-Muslims are permitted to visit the Temple Mount during certain hours but may not pray there. In recent years, Jewish religious nationalists, including members of the new governing coalition, have increasingly visited the site and demanded equal prayer rights for Jews there, infuriating the Palestinians and Muslims around the world.

Last week, a short diplomatic spat erupted between Jerusalem and Amman when Jordan’s ambassador to Israel was briefly held up by police at the entrance to the site during a visit. The Jordanian foreign ministry summoned Israel’s envoy Eitan Surkis after alleging Jordanian ambassador Ghassan Majali was “refused entry” to the Temple Mount and handed him a letter of condemnation; police said that rather than refusing him entry, cops briefly held Majali up since he hadn’t coordinated the visit with them. He later visited the site unimpeded.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu flew to Jordan to meet the Jordanian monarch in their first sit-down in over four years, the premier’s office said after the conclusion of the visit.

A diplomatic source told Channel 12 the talks went well, despite coming on the heels of the diplomatic spat, and a chilly history between Netanyahu and Abdullah.

Tourists visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, January 3, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

“It was a good meeting that underlined the years of familiarity the leaders have with each other,” the source said.

According to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu and Abdullah discussed “strategic, security, and economic cooperation” and the importance of the alliance between the countries.

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.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. (Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit)

In their meeting Tuesday, Netanyahu and Abdullah discussed fears of possible violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank during the month of Ramadan in March, overlapping with Passover this year, and the need for calm, Haaretz reported.

Among the meeting’s attendees were Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, National Security Council chair Tzachi Hanegbi, and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar.

The inclusion of Bar in the meeting pointed to the excellent ties between the Shin Bet chief and his Jordanian counterpart and the security agencies under their leadership, an important component of both countries’ ability to maintain regional stability, Channel 12 reported.

A diplomatic source who is privy to the details told the channel that Jordan’s backing was needed “to allow the situation [on the Temple Mount and its surroundings] to remain under control before Ramadan.”

During the meeting, 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 in the meeting by his Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Chief of Staff Jaafar Haasan, and intelligence chief Ahmed Hosni.

Dermer said the meeting went exceptionally well. “I have been to many meetings between Netanyahu and the king and this one was one of their best meetings,” he said, according to Walla.

Palestinian clash with Israeli police at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 22, 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

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

The visit, so close to the diplomatic tiffs, seemingly indicates that both sides are interested in avoiding the public fights that marked the Israel-Jordan relationship last time Netanyahu was in office.

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.

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

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 disquiet in Jerusalem.

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)

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.

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.

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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