Sunday, November 2, 2014

Remarks by King Hussein may reflect tough political realities within Jordan

Much is often made of the "special " relationship between the U.S. and Israel, but the ties between Israel and Jordan are also important and in some ways unique in the region. Although Israel has, historically, had various degrees of success in partnering with other neighbors, including Egypt and even Iran at one time, perhaps solely by virtue of geography the partnership with Jordan has stood out as different from the others. It may not always be the warmest peace in the world, but it has been one of the most stable for Israel, with Jordan's friendship with the U.S. as well as the internal political realities facing its ruling family, providing significant incentives to avoid further armed conflict with Israel.

Although Israel and Jordan established a decent working relationship in Jerusalem following the end of the Six Day War, and peace between the two was formalized by treaty in 1994, there have been a few incidents in the last few decades which have, at times, cased strain between the rulers of Jordan and Israeli leaders. This past week we saw one such issue arise which has the potential to not only create friction between leaders in the two countries, but provoke reactions by other regional powers.

This most recent point of disagreement centers around access to a particular area of the Old City of Jerusalem which Jews hold as holy because it is the site where the Temple once stood, while Muslims revere the site as a place where the Prophet Mohammed visited on a mystical journey and an important mosque was subsequently built. Anyone who has ever visited this place knows that it is beautiful but also fraught with tension and highly contested.

As The New York Times reported last Thursday, King Hussein II of Jordan has been less than pleased with restrictions placed on access to the site and has lately been noticeably more vocal in expressing his views on how he sees Israel treating the Palestinians, even going so far as to draw what I would call a rather ludicrous comparison between Islamic Fundamentalism and "Zionist extremism." Zionist extremists do exist, and when they commit crimes they are arrested, prosecuted and jailed by Israel - this is a vastly different response than that of Arab or Muslim authorities in the region who often set aside the rule of law to kill extremists when convenient, or look away or support them, when it's even more so. A crime is a crime - but for King Hussein to compare these two strains of extremism and ignore the broader context, especially how each society responds to political violence differently, leaves a big hole in the conversation.

All of this begs the question as to why King Hussein II has decided to speak out now, and whether or not his expressions of concern will impact his country's relationship with Israel. There is some reason to be optimistic here that his remarks will not harm ties between Israel and Jordan - after all,by most accounts, the two countries work well together when it comes to matters of security and intelligence, and there are other initiatives, such as the Arava Institute which have proven successful in bringing Jordanians and Israelis together to tackle issues of common concern around the environment. At the same time, there may be some cause for concern that these pronouncements are reflective of growing pressure within Jordan, which is home to a significant Palestinian population as well as Islamic fundamentalist elements. The real worry here may not be that the Hashemite Kingdom is upset with Israel, but that it's rulers are facing increasing pressure from within to criticize Israel.

If this is indeed the case, then these comments might point to fears and anxieties surrounding the ability of the Royal Family to maintain control of their country. In this scenario, both Israel and the U.S. should be worried, not that Jordan is going to damage its relationship with the Jewish State or with the West, but rather that these remarks are a sign that the political landscape may be shifting within the borders of state which has been a stalwart ally - if so, this is something that could have an impact well beyond the Middle East with long-lasting repercussions.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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