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Status woe: Temple Mount is an enduring thorn in Israel’s ties with Jordan

Israel nixed a US-proposed committee with Jordan to iron out disagreements on flashpoint site after 2021 war; now, those unresolved issues have come home to roost

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

A group of religious Jews walk past the Dome of the Rock during their visit to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary), in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 20, 2022. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)
A group of religious Jews walk past the Dome of the Rock during their visit to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary), in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 20, 2022. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

The swearing-in of the new Israeli government last June marked a fresh chapter in Jerusalem’s relations with Jordan, which had frayed significantly during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister.

Meetings between Jordan’s King Abdullah and senior Israeli ministers became a regular occurrence, after years of disconnect that were perhaps best exemplified by Amman’s refusal last year to grant access to its airspace for Netanyahu to travel to the UAE, ultimately preventing the visit from going forward.

But while a certain spirit of good will seems to have been restored at the leadership level, disagreements regarding the Temple Mount, where Jordan maintains a custodial role, remain.

Recognizing that the dispute cuts deeper than fleeting personal animus, the Biden administration proposed establishing a trilateral committee of Israeli, Jordanian, and American representatives that would settle disputes regarding the status quo on the Temple Mount, and discuss ways to rebuild Israeli-Jordanian ties more broadly. But Israel deemed the informal proposal unnecessary and rejected it, a former senior US official told The Times of Israel.

“You can’t rebuild relations overnight, and another dispute over Al-Aqsa was inevitable, so we thought a joint committee would be a way to address issues pertaining to the status quo so that the sides could get in front of things,” the former official said.

The idea of the trilateral committee rose and fell last summer, soon after May’s 11-day Gaza war, that erupted following heavy clashes between Palestinians and Israel Police at the Temple Mount, known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Then, as was the case over the past month’s escalation at the site and in previous years, the Palestinians’ overarching narrative was that their rights to the site were being threatened by Israeli authorities.

Illustrative: Israeli police arrest a Palestinian during clashes at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 22, 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

“Some of this has to do with fake news on Palestinian social media, but there also have been shifts to the status quo that have gone unaddressed and have fueled the fire,” said the former US official.

The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the record, but an official in the ministry denied that a formal US offer to form such a committee had been made.  “Israel manages its relations with Jordan at the bilateral level,” the official said, rejecting the need for American interlocutors.

In a response sent after publication, the State Department said it had expressed concerns over the violence to Israelis, Palestinians and other officials in the region.

“We continue to call on all sides to exercise restraint, avoid provocative actions and rhetoric, and uphold the historic status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  We also continue to urge Israeli and Palestinian officials to work cooperatively to lower tensions and ensure the safety of everyone,” it said in a statement.

The unwritten ‘status quo’

Israel has long insisted that it maintains the status quo on the Temple Mount, a policy that was summarized famously by Netanyahu in 2015. “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount,” Netanyahu said in a statement after meeting then-US secretary of state John Kerry, Jordan’s Abdullah, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for talks aimed at calming yet another round of tensions sparked by clashes at the site

Israel has continued to reaffirm that position — that Jews are forbidden from praying on the Mount — as recently as this week, but the reality on the mount tells a slightly different story. For at least the past several years, journalists have regularly documented instances of prayer conducted quietly by Jewish visitors on their own and in groups, as Israeli police and even officials from the Jordan-backed Islamic Waqf look on.

While Foreign Minister Yair Lapid dismissed claims of a shift in policy during a briefing with Israeli reporters last week, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai became the first Israeli minister to publicly acknowledge the change, which Palestinians say gives credence to their fears of an effort to gradually remove them from the site.

“There are many more Jews going up to the Temple Mount. There are now those who are stopping and praying as they make their way through — something that was not allowed. There’s a certain escalation, a certain deterioration of the status quo,” Shai told the Kan public broadcaster on Saturday.

For his part, Lapid noted in his Thursday briefing that Israel had reduced the number of Jewish groups allowed to visit the compound from two to one over a daily three-and-a-half-hour period, while arguing that a rise in Jewish visitors did not in itself constitute a violation of the status quo.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center), Israeli Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, and Head of Police, Jerusalem District, Doron Turgeman visit the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 3, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/ Flash90)

Therein lies part of the problem, as the sensitive policy is unwritten and to Palestinians encompasses a much larger range of issues than it does to Israel — from the conduct and supervision of visitors to construction and security at the compound.

“Israel has a very narrow understanding of the status quo, focusing on Jewish prayer, which it says it does not allow, whereas the Palestinians and the Jordanians have a much broader understanding and feel that Israel ignores it,” said a diplomat familiar with the matter.

More Jewish visits

Thus, to Palestinians, as well as to their backers in Amman, an increase in Jewish visitors is itself a status quo violation.

Over five days of Passover last week, 4,625 Jews visited the Temple Mount, almost double the figure from three years ago, according to the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation, a Jewish group that encourages such excursions. In 2014, just 650 Jews visited the site considered the holiest place in Judaism. The site is the third holiest in Islam, while also being a central symbol of Palestinian nationalism.

Palestinian rioters throw a Molotov cocktail from inside Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, April 20, 2022 (MFA Twitter screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Jordan also pointed to an increasing presence of Israeli police in the compound and a deterioration of the Waqf’s authority. In public statements over the past week, officials in Amman have called for a return to a pre-2000 status quo, when the Waqf had more authority over the vetting of Jewish visitors.

The Temple Mount was closed to Jewish visitors that year after then opposition leader and Likud chairman Ariel Sharon carried out a controversial September visit — a visit that Palestinians say sparked the Second Intifada. Israel, for its part, says Sharon’s walkabout was seized upon by the PA’s Yasser Arafat as a pretext to launch that onslaught of terrorism, deflecting president Clinton’s assignation of blame to Arafat for dooming his administration’s peacemaking efforts.

When the Mount reopened in 2003 to Jewish visitors, Israel unilaterally shifted much of the authority over the entry of Jewish visitors from the Waqf to the police.

“I’m not sure if it has to do more with the Israelis thinking it’s a non-issue or with the fact that the coalition is too fragile to show more sympathy to the Jordanian understanding of the status quo, but it hasn’t really been addressed seriously over the past year,” the diplomat familiar with the matter said.

Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, as reported by Channel 12 news, July 17, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)

Last Thursday’s visit of Jewish groups sparked particularly intense clashes as police sought to clear Muslims from the path designated for non-Muslim visitors.

“My concern is what happens the day after Ramadan because if you have constant attacks on Jewish visitors, you will have a de facto temporal division of the mount even if nobody wants it,” said Danny Seidemann, who heads the Terrestrial Jerusalem research institute.

“There will be times when Muslims will be shoved aside and it’ll become a ‘shared’ Jewish-Muslim site, like the Tomb of the Patriarchs,” he added, referring to the Hebron holy site that also houses the Ibrahimi Mosque, which was sectioned off by Israel after the 1967 war.

“The Palestinians have a growing sense of threat and violation because Israeli policies are not shrinking the conflict but rather shrinking ‘Palestinian space,’ those places that are their own, and where they feel safe,” Seidemann added.

Lapid on Sunday insisted that Israel has “no plans to divide the Temple Mount between religions,” adding that the latest clashes were caused by “terrorist organizations [seeking] to hijack the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to create an outbreak of violence in Jerusalem.”

Anger in Amman

Tensions with Amman began boiling over last week as Jordan summoned Israel’s top envoy in the country for a public rebuke over police conduct during clashes at the site. Jordan’s Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh went on to hail the Palestinians hurling stones at the “Zionist sympathizers defiling the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

That infuriated Israel, which accused Jordan of playing a “double game” in its responses to unrest in the capital — haranguing Israel in public while speaking more reasonably behind closed doors.

Demonstrators raise Palestinian and Jordanian flags as well as placards as they march in the streets of the Jordanian capital Amman on April 22, 2022, to show solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem. (AFP)

“They tell us that this is the way that they keep those calling for Jordan to sever its ties with Israel at bay,” a senior Israeli diplomatic official said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity.

More than half of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian descent, and its 1994 peace treaty with Israel is heavily unpopular, particularly during periods of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I’m prepared to accept this double game up to a certain point,” the Israeli diplomatic official said, adding that Jordan had gone too far in the past week and that Jerusalem had passed along stern messages to Amman making clear its disapproval.

The US tries again

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has renewed efforts to mediate between Israel and Jordan, after the rejection of its joint committee proposal last summer.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr have been in the region since last Wednesday for meetings with Jordanian, Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian officials, aimed at restoring calm.

One more modest goal set by the US is pushing Israel to make a subtle but important change to its rhetoric regarding the Temple Mount status quo.

A young boy carries a replica of the Dome of the Rock mosque and waves a Palestinian flag as demonstrators march in the streets of the Jordanian capital Amman on April 22, 2022, to show solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem. (AFP)

While Lapid and some other Israeli officials have stressed their commitment to the status quo, the more common talking point has included a commitment to protecting the “freedom of worship” of all three major religions in Jerusalem.

While seemingly trivial, the point is interpreted by many Palestinians in the context of the Temple Mount and seen as part of a gradual Israeli effort to legitimize Jewish prayer at the compound.

A similar phrase caused a diplomatic fracas last July. Then, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett thanked police for “maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount.”

The statement, which was put out in English and Hebrew, sparked immediate uproar in Amman, Ramallah and Istanbul. A debate ensued over whether Bennett had simply misspoken or intended to announce a major shift in the status quo, given his national religious background. Ultimately, the prime minister dispatched an anonymous official from his office to issue a statement insisting that despite his remark, Israel was committed to maintaining the long-held policy under which Jews are not allowed to pray on the holy site.

President Isaac Herzog (L) and Jordanian King Abdullah II at the Al Husseiniya Palace in Amman, Jordan, March 30, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Cognizant of how talk of “freedom of worship” can be interpreted by the various players at hand, US officials have sought to encourage Israel to avoid using the phrase in talking points and instead focus solely on affirming their commitment to the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, the diplomat familiar with the matter said.

The effort appeared to have made headway as Lapid held another briefing on Sunday, this time with members of the foreign press on the situation in Jerusalem, using the opportunity to employ the same phrase used by Netanyahu seven years ago.

“Muslims pray on the Temple Mount. Non-Muslims visit,” the foreign minister said, with no added line about Israel’s commitment to protecting “freedom of worship.”

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