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August 23, 2016 6:38 am

Will Temple Mount Tensions Yet Again Strain Israeli-Jordanian Relations?

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The Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. – Jordan’s King Abdullah II vowed to fight against repeated violations and attacks carried out by Israel and extremist groups on the Temple Mount complex, according to an interview in the Jordanian daily Ad-Dustour last week.

Tension between Israel and Jordan over the Temple Mount has simmered for the past few years, with Jewish worshipers and Muslim activists clashing at the holy site, igniting larger waves of protests and terrorism by Islamists. Late last year, these tensions caused Jordan to recall its Israel ambassador, returning him only in February. That followed steps by Israel to ease restrictions on Muslim access to the holy site put in place to reduce violence, which further showed a willingness to uphold the status quo agreement.

In his interview, King Abdullah claimed that Israel was seeking to “Judaize” the site and “violate [its] sanctity.” He added, “Our responsibility towards the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem is our top priority in the international arena, and we use all means necessary to defend the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Further, he vowed that Jordan would resist Israel’s “blatantly repeated attempts to change the status quo in Jerusalem regarding its landmarks and the prejudice against Islamic and Christian peoples.”

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These latest comments may signal a deepening strain in relations between Israel and Jordan, one of only two Arab states that has a peace treaty with the Jewish state.

The Temple Mount — the site of the two former Jewish temples — has long played a pivotal role in Jewish affairs and worship. Yet after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the 1st century CE, the site passed through a succession of foreign rulers, from the Muslim Caliphs and Crusaders to more recently the Ottoman and British empires. While the site was under control of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate in 691 CE, the Dome of the Rock was built over the site of the former Jewish Temple, a move that still ignites impassioned debate today.

After failing to gain control of Jerusalem’s Old City during the 1948 War of Independence, Israeli forces captured the Old City and the Temple Mount from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War. Despite regaining Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount, for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, Israeli leaders relinquished religious sovereignty over the site to the Jordanian-run Islamic Waqf. Under that arrangement, which would become the “status quo,” Jewish prayer was forbidden on the Temple Mount and non-Muslim access was restricted to certain days and hours.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that Israel will not change the Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian status quo, despite pressure from some members of his own political party and ministerial cabinet to do so.

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Israel has been consistent with maintaining the status quo.

“There has been no change in policy. The only thing that has changed is there has been an increase in the number of Jewish visitors to the compound,” he said.

Still, many within Jordan and the wider Arab world don’t fully understand the status quo agreement, Dr.Abdullah Swalha, director of the Center for Israel Studies in Jordan, explained to “A majority of the people in Jordan and the Arab world don’t understand the agreement since the 1967 war that allowed Jews to visit Temple Mount but not pray,” Swalha said. “When they saw Jews ascended the Temple Mount it made [Jordanians] very upset.”

The Temple Mount status quo should be maintained, and Israel must make it clear that it has no plans to harm or destroy the site, or change the status quo, Swalha said.

The most dangerous thing, he added, would be for the conflict in Jerusalem to escalate from a national conflict to a religious one.

However, Islamist groups, led by the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel and Hamas, which are sponsored by Qatar and Turkey, are seeking to incite tensions on the Temple Mount to create a new situation at the expense of Jordan’s role, Swalha added.

Israeli officials have long blamed Palestinian groups like Hamas and the Islamic Movement as well as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas of using the Temple Mount to incite violence.

“For several years now, the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] has waged a campaign claiming that settlers are storming the Temple Mount,” said Schanzer, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “This is a wild exaggeration. Jews are allowed on the compound during specific, limited and allotted times. Admittedly, there has been an uptick in the number of Jewish visitors reflecting an increased interest in visiting the Temple Mount. But there is nothing outwardly extremist about these visits.”

While King Abdullah understands that Netanyahu seeks to maintain the status quo, there is concern among Jordanians about groups within Israel that are calling for greater Jewish access to the holy site.

“Unfortunately, we’ve heard many voices expressing a different opinion, especially from the extremely religious groups [in Israel],” Swalha said. “In light of the absence of enough information about domestic policy in Israel, the people in the Arab world thought that this is the stance of the Israel government.”

While tensions continue over the Temple Mount, the relationship between Israel and Jordan otherwise remains fairly strong, as both countries seek to cooperate on a number of economic and security areas amid challenges posed by extremist groups such as the Islamic State.

Military and intelligence cooperation is consistently good, Schanzer said. The diplomatic agreement between the two sides has endured. Jordan’s king recognizes the value of his cooperation with Israel.

In April, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan said that Israel has seen “unprecedented” intelligence cooperation with Egypt and Jordan as both countries work against the common threat posed by the Islamic State and other extremists.

In addition, there have been a number of important economic developments between the two countries recently. Last month, a senior Israeli delegation, led by Deputy Minister of Regional Cooperation Ayoob Kara, met with Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Al-Muki to discuss cooperation on energy, water resources and infrastructure projects.

These projects are important to Jordan, as its economy and basic infrastructure has been severely strained by the several million Syrian refugees it has taken in.

The largest deal currently being planned between the two countries is a 200 km (124 mile) underground pipeline between the Red Sea and Dead Sea, which also includes a hydroelectric power plant. Other expected agreements include a deal for Israel to provide Jordan with natural gas as well as a joint industrial zone along the Israel-Jordan border, south of the Israeli city of Beit Shean, that would include factories and warehouses on both sides.

“There is high level of cooperation between Jordan and Israel on various issues such as security, environment, agriculture and energy,” Swalha said. “However, the bilateral relations have been held hostage to Palestinian-Israeli interactions.”

Despite the challenges over the Temple Mount, Israel and many Sunni Arab states, such as Jordan, face a common threat from growing Iranian influence and Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS. Swalha believes the warm relationship between Israel and Jordan could be a bridge to wider peace with the Sunni Arab world.

“Jordan could play a key role in bringing all the parties (Israel and Sunni Arab states) together,” he said. However, progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace needs to be renewed if there is going to be any breakthrough in Israeli-Arab relations.

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