‘Frenemies’: The Curious Relationship Between Jordan and Israel

Jordanian King Abdullah I (left), his son King Talal (centre), Abdullah's grandson King Hussein (right), the Israeli and Jordanian flags, and a Jerusalem background.
Jordanian King Abdullah I (left), his son King Talal (centre), Abdullah’s grandson King Hussein (right), the Israeli and Jordanian flags, and a Jerusalem background.

Introduction

King Abdullah II, Jordan’s current monarch, recently sat down with American President Trump’s adviser, Jared Kushner, to discuss President Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.   The monarch affirmed his support for a two-state solution with Israel withdrawing to the 1967 armistice lines, established by Jordan and Israel in 1949 after Israel’s victorious Independence War against the invading Arab armies determined to overturn the United Nations’ 1947 vote partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.

This article examines the modern relationship between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Israel. Although Israel enjoyed better relations with Jordan than with any other Arab neighbour, its history was marred by the twenty-year-long annexation of Judea and Samaria, including Jerusalem, by Jordan, which saw the widespread destruction of Jewish heritage.

Jordan’s Establishment

In 1917-18, the British under General Allenby forced the Ottoman forces out of Palestine.  In 1920, the modern territory of Jordan was claimed by the self-proclaimed Arab Kingdom of Syria, which was heavily dependent on the French and the British.  The Kingdom was to span from the Taurus Mountains in the north to the Sinai in the south.  Alternatively, it was to extend from the Mediterranean in the west to the desert in the east.  The project failed; and that same year, the French occupied the Northern portion of the Kingdom (Syria), and the British established their dominance over the region that is today Jordan, and later re-named the Emirate of Transjordan. Then, they installed the Hashemite King Abdullah I as the ruler of the Emirate.

In 1946, under British influence, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was officially formed, its independence became more pronounced, and the Kingdom was permitted access to the Arab League and the UN.  Israel gained independence two years later.

Upon the Declaration of Independence of the Jewish State in 1948, Jordan with other Arab states bore arms against Israel. The Hashemite Kingdom annexed the West Bank, including its Arab populations, as well as cities of major significance to the Jewish people, above all Hebron and the Old City of Jerusalem.

Judea and Samaria Under Jordan: Jordanization and De-Judaization

King Abdullah I, along with the Arab world, saw Jewish dominion on what they viewed as Arab-Muslim land a threat. With Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, the Jordanian Arab Legion entered the British Mandate of Palestine, eventually taking over substantial parts of the area allocated to an Arab state. King Abdullah installed governors, whom he appointed in “military” capacities, so as not to anger the other Arab states, which did not support the incorporation of Arab Palestine into Jordan. The Jordanian King continued enforcing the state’s influence over the area through several methods designed to “Jordanizethe area.

Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank led to the Islamization of East Jerusalem and to the destruction of its Jewish life and heritage: Synagogues were destroyed, mass desecration of graves took place, and access to Holy Sites, including the cemetery on the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount, was denied to Jewish worshippers. Tensions only worsened in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City as synagogues were destroyed (Israeli, 2002, p. 24) [2]. 

The holy Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where Jews buried their dead for over 2,500 years, was desecrated.  Tombstones numbering in the thousands were demolished and used for paving stones, construction materials, or for latrines in the Arab Legion army camps.  In another move to de-Judaize Jerusalem, the Intercontinental Hotel was built on top of the Mount of Olives, and a highway to the hotel was paved over the cemetery.  

The Jordanian King’s Dilemma

As tensions mounted in the period following the proclamation of the Jewish State, there was more pressure on Jordan than ever to bring about peace in the region by settling the dispute between Jews and Arabs.  Jordanian efforts to establish peace with Israelis in 1950, at first glance, appeared sincere. King Abdullah of Jordan (the second son of Sharif Hussein, who had led the Hashemite Army of the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire) was convinced that the Israelis would concede a substantial piece of their territory for peace.  Unfortunately, as he was unable to persuade the Arab world to commit to a peace plan with the newly-established Jewish state, and considered unreliable for even trying, he failed to broker any sort of deal with Israel. 

Abdullah recognized his limitations and later admitted to an American member of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) that, “I am an old man [he was sixty-nine-years-old] I know that my power is limited.  I know that I am hated by my own son [Tallal].  I also know that my own people distrust my peace efforts.  I know I could get a peace settlement if only I had some encouragement.” (Gazit, 1988, p. 409) [1].

That encouragement never came.  On the contrary, the Arab League passed two Resolutions threatening to expel any member of the League that established a separate peace agreement with Israel.  Despite these setbacks, the King dared to endeavour to bring about peace. In 1951, a radical Palestinian Arab, who feared peace between Jordan and Israel might soon become reality, approached the King by the al-Aqsa mosque, on the Temple Mount, sneaked by his guards, and assassinated him at gunpoint (Gazit, 1988, p. 409). How genuine had been his desire to negotiate peace with the Jewish State? Sir Alec Kirkbride, a British diplomat who served in Jordan and British Mandatory Palestine, revealed in a letter to the Foreign Office, that the King’s cooperation with Israel was, in fact, only the first step in a plan to absorb the Jewish State in the establishment of a Greater Syria (Gazit, 1988, 422).  If the King really did want to force the Jews to assimilate into a broader Arab state, then Abdullah I’s portrayal of himself as a peaceful leader is wholly inaccurate.  At this juncture, Jordan, under the King’s thumb, already annexed Jerusalem.

For Jews, peace came after the Holocaust that slaughtered upwards of six million Jews and the Arab Expulsion during the 1940’s to the 1960’s, which saw mass Arab pogroms against Jews and the expulsion of over 850,000 Jews from the Arab world.  For Jews, the only shred of peace and safety came when the world acquiesced the decision of a secure and sovereign Jewish State.

The Six-Day War and the Temple Mount

In the spirit of survival, the Jews maneuvered for any type of livable environment.  A couple of decades into the Israel’s modern establishment and the army grew stronger, the nationhood became more established and the war of attrition between Israel and the Arab states was still alive.

Just one week before the 1967 War, Jordan entered into a defence pact with Egypt. Israel pre-emptively struck the Soviet-backed and supplied Egyptian air force and launched a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai desert.  Surprised, Cairo ordered the Egyptian commander of the Jordanian army, about an hour after Israel’s air attack on Egypt’s air force, to attack Israel.  Israel repeatedly warned Jordan not to enter the fray.  Regardless, Jordanian forces started bombarding West Jerusalem from the Eastern part of the city. Seeing an opportunity to reunite the city, Israel forced Jordanian troops out of their military positions in East Jerusalem, conquering East Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan River (Judea and Samaria).

On June 7, the UN Security Council called for a ceasefire.  Jordan and Israel accepted immediately, Egypt only accepted the following day, and Syria shelled northern Israel, ceasing only after Israel recaptured the Golan Heights from them.   

Against all odds, Israel won the war. Losing fewer than 1,000 soldiers, Israel completely humiliated the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian forces, destroying the Egyptian and Syrian air forces and killing nearly 20,000 troops.  Israel retook the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, from Jordan.  Israel also acquired the Golan Heights from Syria.  

For the first time since 1948, Jews could enter the Old City, pray at the Western Wall, and access the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem.  Israeli governance within the Land of Israel enforced equal access to the Holy Sites for people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds, whether in Hebron or on the Temple Mount.  Shortly after, the Law of Holy Places was passed, cementing this equality into law.  This law enforced legal protection against vandalism and desecration of holy sites, as well as equal access to holy sites in Israeli-governed land.

Since the end of the Six-Day War, Israel allowed the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf (the Islamic religious trust) to manage the Islamic institutions on and around the Temple Mount in the Old City.  This includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.  The Islamic Waqf has historically governed access to the Kingdom of Jerusalem since the Muslim conquest in 1187 and is considered the civil administration of the Temple Mount.  The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem is the only Israeli recognized responsible party for Islamic religious affairs at the site and at the end of the Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem, the Israeli government allowed Jordan to maintain its authority over the Islamic holy sites on the Temple Mount.

From Yom Kippur War to Peres-Hussein Agreement

During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Jordan abstained from any conflict with Israel despite mobilizing its troops.  Assaf David, an international relations expert and researcher examined documents from the 1973 war to find that Jordan deployed their troops simply as a symbolic gesture of unity with its surrounding Arab neighbours; thus, four days after the war started, on October 10, 1973, the Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan suggested to United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that King Hussein would consistently provide the Israelis with details of Jordanian forces’ whereabouts to guarantee that they not meet up with Israeli forces.  King Hussein then personally met the U.S. ambassador in Amman to discuss the deployment of Jordanian troops as a mere facade to appeal to the Arab world.

In the aftermath of the war, relations between Israel and Jordan further normalized. In 1987, former Foreign Minister of Israel, Shimon Peres, from the Labour Party, sponsored an agreement with King Hussein of Jordan to be signed in London.  Peres never provided a copy of the agreement to Likud Party leader and Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir.  On that basis, and increasing polarized ideological differences, Shamir’s trust in Peres and the deal deteriorated.

One year after the Peres-Hussein Agreement fell through, in 1988, King Hussein renounced all Jordanian claims to the West Bank and conceded them to the Palestine Liberation Organization with messages that: “Jordan is not Palestine […] the independent Palestinian state will be established on the occupied Palestinian land after its liberation, God willing.” After the start of the Oslo peace process, in 1994, a peace agreement was signed between the two nations. 

Conclusion

King Abdullah II, Jordan’s current reigning King, considers Israel a crucial ally in the region.  While there are still points of contention when negotiating Israel’s borders and politics, the two nations share diplomatic, economic and cultural relations.  Should Israelis trust their ‘frenemies’?  The Hashemite Kingdom, throughout its relatively short history has been more concerned with its own well-being and polishing its reputation for the Arab League than with provoking war with Israel.  Israel maintains no obligation to trust its neighbours across the West Bank, but the relationship between Jordan and the Jewish State must continue to flourish for continued prosperity in the region.

References

[1] Gazit, Mordechai. “The Israel-Jordan Peace Negotiations (1949-51): King Abdallah’s Lonely Effort.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 23, no. 3, 1988, pp. 409–424. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/260690.

[2] Israeli. Raphael. Jerusalem Divided: The Armistice Regime, 1947-1967. 2002.  Frank Cass.  Portland, Oregon.

 

Jonathan Wasserlauf is a researcher and publisher for the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, a political science major, graduate student, and founder & editor-in-chief of King David’s Journal.