Don’t pursue Saudi-Israeli peace at Jordan’s expense

Michael Sharnoff

Foreign Policy  /  January 26, 2021

The Hashemite Kingdom views custodianship of Jerusalem’s holy sites as a core national interest. Rumours that Riyadh is seeking to displace Amman would humiliate and weaken the Jordanian monarchy and endanger regional security.

In recent months, Jordanian leaders have issued various statements rejecting what they perceive as Israeli attempts to change the historic and legal status quo in Jerusalem. Jordan takes the issue of Jerusalem very seriously and has repeatedly warned that changing the character of the city is a red line. “Sovereignty over Jerusalem is Palestinian and the custodianship over its holy sites is Hashemite,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said last year.

Last month during the inauguration of parliament, King Abdullah reiterated the Hashemite Kingdom’s firm commitment to defending Jerusalem: “The Hashemite Custodianship of Jerusalem’s Islamic and Christian holy sites is a duty, a commitment, a firm belief, and a responsibility we have proudly undertaken for more than a hundred years … we will not accept any attempts to alter its historical and legal status quo, nor attempts of temporal or spatial division of Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al Haram al-Sharif.”

While these statements are obviously directed at Israel, they are also intended for Saudi Arabia and the United States. Indeed, the Peace to Prosperity Plan, also known as the Trump Plan, and the Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration between Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco, have exacerbated Jordanian concerns about Jerusalem.

So far, the Abraham Accords have provided great concessions. The Emiratis will receive F-35 stealth jets from the United States. Sudan will be removed from the U.S. terrorism and sanctions list. Morocco will get recognition of sovereignty claims over Western Sahara—unless the Biden administration revokes Trump’s move.

What the Jordanians are asking is what will the Saudis get in exchange for normalizing ties with Israel?

 Saudi Arabia already controls Islam’s two holiest cities: Mecca and Medina. It may have its eyes set on Jerusalem to obtain a complete monopoly over Islam’s holiest sites. Recent Saudi gestures, including refraining from acknowledging Jordan’s role in Jerusalem and pledging $150 million to support religious endowments there, suggest that Riyadh is seeking to play a greater role in the city, or at the very least, aims to undermine Hashemite influence.

Jordan enjoys close ties with Saudi Arabia. In the past however, a deep rivalry and competition existed between the Hashemites and the House of Saud. From the 10th century until 1924, the Hashemites ruled over Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque. The House of Saud, the ruling family of modern Saudi Arabia, contested Hashemite custodianship over the holy places in Mecca. They went to war and expelled the Hashemites from Arabia in 1924. When Saudi Arabia became independent in 1932, the kingdom gained control over the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina, and elevated its own status as the custodian of the two holy mosques.

After losing Mecca, the Hashemites looked to regain their prestige and leadership status among Muslims and Arabs. In 1921, the Hashemites reasserted themselves as the ruling dynasty in the Emirate of Transjordan, the precursor to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam and outside the control of the House of Saud, seemed an enticing opportunity for Hashemite ambitions. In 1924, the Hashemites helped renovate Al-Aqsa Mosque which provided newfound influence for energy-poor Transjordan. Jordan’s status as guardian of the holy places in Jerusalem became a de facto reality under Jordanian rule of the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967.

Israel conquered Eastern Jerusalem, home to the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, and Al-Aqsa Mosque, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Jordanians have periodically accused Israel of destroying the character of “Arab Jerusalem” by tarnishing Islamic holy places through its clearing operations and archaeological excavations near the Western Wall and building settlements in Eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank. After the war and throughout the 1970s-80s, statements like these were not only intended to bolster Jordan’s image as a defender of Arab and Islamic causes, but they strongly implied that Eastern Jerusalem, as well as the West Bank, should return to Jordanian sovereignty.

By 1988, Jordan grew tired of competing with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) for influence on the West Bank. King Hussein formally severed legal and administrative ties to the land, but Jerusalem was excluded from Hussein’s disengagement decision. Jerusalem, with its religious and historical connection to the Hashemites, had always been the real prize for Jordan. Jordan’s connection to the city helped bolster the kingdom’s legitimacy to speak for and defend Arab and Islamic interests.

Jordan did not regain control over the West Bank as part of the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty, but its historical custodianship role in Jerusalem was reinforced. In the treaty, Israel stipulated that it “respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem. When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines.” Jordan’s legitimacy in Jerusalem was further enhanced by the Palestinians, when in 2013, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recognized Jordan’s role as protector of the city’s holy sites and “Palestinian sovereignty over all of Palestine, including its capital East Jerusalem.”

As more Arab and Muslim states normalize relations with Israel or express willingness to do so, Jordan has become increasingly anxious that a deal may incentivize Saudi recognition of Israel in exchange for the Saudis taking over the Hashemites’ historic role as custodians of the holy places in Jerusalem.

Stripping Jordan of its traditional caretaker role in Jerusalem and replacing it with Saudi Arabia would be a risk and perhaps too big a price, even if it meant Saudi-Israeli peace. Israel and the United States have long viewed Jordan as an anchor of stability in an unstable region. Jordan is a major non-NATO ally, and has participated in the international anti-Islamic State coalition. It also strives to win the long-term battle against violent extremist organizations through religious moderationtolerance, and interfaith dialogue.

Even rumours that the Hashemites could lose their caretaker role in Jerusalem will likely place unnecessary stress on Jordan.

They will force King Abdullah to placate Jordanian and Palestinian suspicions that the Hashemites are forfeiting their right to defend religious holy sites. The symbolism of Jerusalem has served as a major source of religious legitimacy for the Hashemite dynasty.

It has helped cultivate an image of one Jordanian family to unite the Hashemite ruling family, the Trans-Jordanian minority and the Jordanian-Palestinian majority under a pan-Jordanian identity. Jordan’s connection with Jerusalem also aims to emphasize the continuity of Jordan’s historical, political, and religious ties with Palestine, and its ability to represent and defend Arab, Palestinian, and Islamic interests. The kingdom views the Palestinian cause as a central domestic and foreign-policy issue.

Jordan expects to play a key role in any final status arrangement between Israelis and Palestinians and has a vested interest in stability and prosperity west of the Jordan River. Therefore, fundamental changes to the status quo in Jerusalem could damage ties with Israel and the United States, harm relations between Jordan’s different population groups, weaken Jordan’s moderate role in favour of a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and create unintended consequences for regional peace and security.

A Saudi-Israeli deal would be a remarkable diplomatic achievement. However, the benefits must not outweigh the risks. The prospect of losing custodianship over the holy places in Jerusalem would be another setback and humiliation for Jordan. If the United States and Israel view Jordan as a strategic partner, they should be mindful of Amman’s position in Jerusalem and its strategic concerns. Reaffirming these positions and recognizing Jordan as a reliable ally could go a long way and help alleviate suspicions inside the kingdom that a solution to the conflict could come at Jordan’s expense.

Michael Sharnoff is an associate professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies; he is the author of Nasser’s Peace: Egypt’s Response to the 1967 War with Israel