AnalysisTemple Mount encounter was more fraught than first reported

Typically al-Aqsa’s top defender, Jordan signals it won’t dwell on spat at holy site

Despite scuffle between envoy and police on Temple Mount, Amman appears to be avoiding a major fight, says Israel, but wary Abdullah can only refrain from responding for so long

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

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)
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)

Jordan is working to lower diplomatic tensions after its ambassador to Israel was delayed by police while visiting the Temple Mount, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

A letter of rebuke Jordan’s Foreign Ministry handed to Israel’s envoy Eitan Surkis on Tuesday was measured and showed a desire to move on, said the official.

Jordan protested that Ambassador Ghassan Majali was “refused entry” when he tried to visit the holy site. Majali was held up by police at the entrance and left in protest, prompting Amman’s response.

In another sign that Jordan was eager to put the spat behind it, Majali returned hours later and toured the Temple Mount, including praying in Al-Aqsa Mosque.

“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.”

Jordan’s decision to downplay the incident is notable for a number of reasons.

Israel’s police portrayed the incident as a minor misunderstanding, claiming that a policeman hadn’t immediately recognized the ambassador, causing a “very small” delay while the cop consulted his commander.

“Had he waited a few more seconds he could have entered,” a police statement said.

However, footage that emerged Wednesday showed a much more fraught encounter. Within the compound, an Arabic-speaking police officer hurries ahead of the ambassador — after the policeman’s orders to wait were ignored — and blocks his path. Majali puts his hand on the officer as the cop speaks into his radio, before a member of the Jordanian entourage tries to force the cop backward. The policeman aggressively shoves the Jordanian aide, then other members of the entourage crowd around the officer to argue.

Majali left the area of the Old City’s Lion’s Gate after refusing to request permission to enter. He was accompanied by the head of the Islamic Waqf — a Jordanian-appointed council that administers the Temple Mount.

Jordan’s muted official reaction appears to run counter to the significance the Hashemites place on the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Jordanian royal family sees its legitimacy resting in no small part on it being an effective guardian of the mosque on behalf of Muslims around the world.

A photo montage of Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shaking hands in front of the Temple Mount / Al-Aqsa mosque compound is seen on a building during a welcome ceremony for the Jordanian King in the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 7, 2017. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Moreover, King Abdullah’s personal legitimacy has wobbled recently as well. The tribal groups that have traditionally been seen as the bedrock of regime support have been increasingly critical of not only the government in recent years, but of the entire ruling system.

Last April, rare palace intrigue spilled into the open, as King Abdullah’s half-brother Prince Hamzah was placed under house arrest. The dramatic and very public episode shone a spotlight on fissures that have the potential to cause the entire edifice of the Hashemite regime to crumble.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back in power, officials in Amman are keeping a close eye on Israeli actions on the Temple Mount. His right-wing coalition partners have in the past called publicly for Jewish prayer — and even allegedly ritual sacrifices — to be allowed at the site.

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

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s first visit to the Temple Mount in office led to furious condemnations from the Arab world and Jordan, which 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.

Observers have fully expected Israel-Jordan relations to get worse 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 its unique role on the holy site — which it, not Israel, claims is “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.

Joshua Krasna, Middle East expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, called Jordan’s role on the Temple Mount a “keystone” of Hashemite legitimacy.

“Their ‘steadfastness’ in protecting the Haram el- Sharif both provides them with religious legitimacy and may help make more palatable the kingdom’s unpopular relations with Israel,” Krasna said. “It also serves to afford Jordan a high profile and stature in the Arab and Muslim world.”

It is also one of the few remaining artifacts of the Hashemites’ control of the West Bank and of Jerusalem, where the king’s grandfather and namesake gave his life.

Until 1925, the Hashemites were guardians of Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities of Islam, when they were defeated in war by the Saudis.

“The tie to al-Aqsa and the Haram are what is left of that lofty role,” said Krasna.

Israeli police officers escort a group of Jewish men to visit the Temple Mount, August 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Sharif, the Amman-based journalist, said it was “no secret that King Abdullah is wary of steps that the Israeli government might take to change the existing status quo, so any provocation is seen as an escalation and with great concern by Amman.”

Last week, police were accused by the Waqf of holding up a visit by Lord Tariq Ahmad, the UK minister for the Middle East region, to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Ahmad later played down the incident, telling the BBC that the hold-up was due to “security checks, whatever they needed to do.”

Lord Tariq Ahmad, the UK minister for the Middle East region, left, stands in front of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on January 12, 2022. (Twitter/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Jordan might be willing to keep a lid on incidents for the time being, but as perceived violations of their vision of the Temple Mount “status quo” continue, Amman will be under pressure to respond more forcefully.

Tuesday’s incident was covered widely in the press, and the incident went viral. “People are angry and some lawmakers have called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador,” said Sharif.

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