Jordan fears it is losing its recognized status as official custodian of Jerusalem’s holy Muslim sites, including the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, as Palestinians incited by Hamas, other terror groups and the Palestinian Authority continuously held riots during the Muslim month of Ramadan. In at least one incident, rioters nearly set the Al-Aqsa mosque on fire. Jordan has blamed Israel for the violence and for violating the status quo there. And now, it is demanding total control over the Temple Mount, with worrying consequences. But experts say the story goes deeper.
Moshe Albo, a senior researcher in the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University in Herzliya (formerly the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya), told JNS that in order to understand what’s happening in Jerusalem, it’s important to understand the broader context.
He explained that Jordan is currently experiencing “huge” domestic economic and political crises. With soaring energy and basic food prices, in addition to visible cracks within the royal family, Jordan’s King Abdullah II is losing his image of stability.
The country is also worried that Hamas is replacing it as custodian and “gatekeeper” of the Temple Mount.
Responding to criticism that Israeli Police used heavy-handed tactics to quell Palestinian violence on the Temple Mount, earlier this week Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid accused Hamas of orchestrating the riots. At this point, Palestinian rioters seem to be listening to instructions from Hamas—not the Jordanian Waqf.
On top of that, Jordan is worried about Gulf states replacing it as the custodian of Jerusalem’s holy Muslim sites.
Jordan did not participate in the recent “Negev Summit,” and according to Albo, it sees the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis and Moroccans as contenders for custodianship over Al-Aqsa—a message that has recently been voiced a number of times.
On Friday, Israeli journalist Yoni Ben-Menachem tweeted that there is a “disagreement between the UAE and Jordan over the Temple Mount.”
He wrote that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed, “demands that the status quo on the Temple Mount allow freedom of worship for members of all religions, as stipulated in the standardization agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. King Abdullah opposes that and claims this violates the existing status quo and the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel.”
That is a groundbreaking statement by an Arab leader to make, especially given the timing, and suggests regional elbowing for control of the Temple Mount.
According to Albo, the Jordanian reaction to what is taking place on the Temple Mount is a result of its desire to secure its responsibility over the mountain and to ensure that no other regional player replaces it as custodian.
“The Jordanians do not like the Gulf states talking about the mountain,” said Albo, “but [Jordan] is hardly in a position to secure its position.”
As part of its concern over losing control, Jordan reportedly submitted a letter to the Biden administration, demanding the Waqf (Muslim religious guards) be given total control over the Temple Mount. It wants to institute a dress code for non-Muslims, as well as limit visitors to groups no larger than five people. Jordan is also demanding that Israel Police no longer be allowed on the Temple Mount, even if rioters attack Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall or visitors to the site itself.
Its demands also include giving the Waqf the authority to severely restrict non-Muslim visits to the Temple Mount; requiring non-Muslims to apply to visit in writing in advance; and setting restrictive tour routes of no more than 500 feet (150 meters) in each direction for non-Muslim visitors.
Netanyahu ‘was only part of the problem’
Israeli media reported on Friday that Israel has so far rejected Jordan’s demands.
According to Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Jordanian request “is almost certainly a non-starter.”
He said Israel is not likely to change the status quo in the Old City, and Jordan’s “aggressive push for more control could even spur tensions with Israel.”
Schanzer noted that Amman’s ties with Israel were expected to improve after the departure of longtime Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who “was said to be the primary obstacle to warmer ties.”
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz all made state visits to Jordan in recent months—a sign that Israel’s ties with Jordan are strong and cooperation is at its highest level in years.
However, with this most recent flare-up in Israel-Jordan ties, Schanzer suggested that “it is clear now that [Netanyahu] was only part of the problem. The other problem appears to be Jordan’s policy of siding with the Palestinians in just about every instance. This approach is not sustainable if the goal is to build stronger ties with Israel or to help guide the Palestinians toward reform and eventual statehood.”
Albo also said he doesn’t believe Israel will allow Jordan to expand the Waqf’s responsibilities since it would change the existing status quo. It is this status quo that has everyone so agitated and on edge.
Jordan and the Palestinians insist on reinstituting the status quo as it was agreed upon before the year 2000 when non-Muslims required Waqf permission in advance to visit the Temple Mount. They maintain that the status quo has been violated since then.
Israel insists on maintaining the status quo after 2000, when non-Muslims were given freer access to visit—though not pray on—the Temple Mount without requiring Waqf permission.
According to Hillel Frisch, a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and an expert on the Arab world at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, the Waqf in most Arab states “are Muslim Brotherhood adherents. They are co-opted by the state and closely monitored. Here, the situation is much more complicated and hence Jordanian custodianship much more problematic.”
But it is not only the Waqf that is problematic. According to Ehud Yaari of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the P.A. also “played a major role in incitement to demonstrate on the Temple Mount, spreading fabricated claims that Israel is seeking to change the status quo there.”
Israeli and Jordanian officials are expected to meet after Ramadan to discuss the Palestinian violence and a perceived change to the status quo there, but now Israeli officials say they are refusing to meet due to incendiary remarks made by Jordan’s Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh.
At a parliament meeting last week, Khasawneh said, “I salute every Palestinian, and all the employees of the Jordanian Islamic Waqf, who proudly stand like minarets, hurling their stones in a volley of clay at the Zionist sympathizers defiling the Al-Aqsa mosque under the protection of the Israeli occupation government.”
Israel said it will wait to meet with Jordanian representatives until after a number of dates that may see Palestinian incitement and rioting pass. Those dates include Israeli Independence Day (Yom Ha’aztmaut) on May 5, Nakba Day on May 15 and Jerusalem Day on May 29.
‘Palestinian terror groups inflaming the holy sites’
Meanwhile, King Abdullah is in Washington to discuss these issues with the Biden administration. His trip comes after P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to Jordan on Wednesday, where Abdullah reaffirmed Jordan’s full support for the Palestinians.
The Biden administration, notably U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has consistently called for “calm on both sides.”
But Israel has pushed back against such unfair and inaccurate representations of the reality on the ground.
Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan told the U.N. Security Council on Monday that this demand is “completely detached from reality. The very notion that mobs of violent rioters motivated by radical Islamic terror groups could be placed on the same moral scale as a law-abiding democracy making every effort to keep the peace is ludicrous.”
He added that “the only ones breaking the status quo on the Temple Mount are the Palestinian terror groups inflaming the holy sites.”
U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland agreed with Israel’s version of events when he addressed the U.N. Security Council, saying “Palestinians threw stones, fireworks and other heavy objects toward Israeli security forces. … Following a standoff with those inside, Israeli police entered the mosque and arrested those barricaded inside.”
It seems that Wennesland agrees that the idea that “both sides” are creating violence is nonsense.
Israel is consistently called on by the international community to protect freedom of worship at all holy sites. Yet Jordan, as well as the international community, has long insisted that Israeli authorities restrict Jewish freedom of worship on Judaism’s holiest site in the name of maintaining the status quo.
According to Frisch, “just as no other country in the world compromises its sovereignty in its capital, so should Israel have maintained its sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the most important site in its capital [when it liberated it in 1967]. Conceding to Jordanian control over the Temple Mount, when the real powers behind the scenes are the P.A. and Hamas, has compromised this sovereignty evermore to the detriment of the security of Jerusalem’s citizens, both Jews and Arabs.”
He noted that “most Arabs want to pray in peace on the Temple Mount just like the Jews, but the Waqf, presumably under Jordanian control but in reality manned by Hamas adherents, turn the Temple Mount into an arena of increasing violence.”
For its part, Israel has been working hard to control events on the ground as well as in diplomatic circles.
Israel’s foreign ministry led significant efforts to influence the narrative in recent weeks amid the wave of terror attacks targeting Israelis and efforts by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other extremists to hijack the Al-Aqsa mosque in order to create an outbreak of violence in Jerusalem and from there, a violent conflict across the country.
Lapid held a briefing for the foreign press and the ministry to confront fake news meant to inflame tensions in real-time on social-media networks and in the media. The ministry also used its digital platforms to express Israel’s desire to calm the situation in more than 50 languages to some 10 million followers. In Arabic alone, the ministry’s social-media efforts reached 8 million viewers over the last two weeks, according to the foreign ministry.
Albo was optimistic. He said the big test will be after the Eid al-Fitr, a celebration that marks the end of the month-long Ramadan.
On Thursday, a reported 200,000 worshippers attended prayers on the Temple Mount for Qadr Night (Laylat al-Qadr in Arabic), a significant date on the Islamic calendar during the month of Ramadan. Friday drew huge numbers to the mount as well for the last Friday prayers of Ramadan.
“If these pass peacefully,” he said, “then overall, the incitement did not succeed. If you look at the strategic picture, the world was focused on Ukraine and not focused on Jerusalem. The Palestinians did not succeed in transferring the events in Jerusalem to the whole Palestinian issue.”
“Until now,” he said, “Israel succeeded in maintaining stability.”