“I said we would bring you home and you have returned home,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli security guard by telephone minutes after he crossed out of Jordan over the Allenby Bridge together with the embassy staff.
Their passage late Monday night marked a quick end to a crisis with Jordan over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that had quickly threatened to escalate out of control by an incident on Sunday, which Israel called a terror attack and the Jordanian public viewed as case of murder.
Netanyahu’s office released a photograph of the phone call that showed the Israeli premiere smiling at the resolution of a situation that could have led to a break down of diplomatic ties with Jordan by the sheer nature of the emotions involved.
It would have been a move that ran counter to Israel’s larger regional security interests. The Hashemite monarchy is often described as Israel’s most stable regional partner, particularly at time of regime change and radicalization in other Middle Eastern countries.
But the strong financial and military ties between the two governments who signed a peace treaty in 1994, is often tested by Jordan’s pro-Palestinian stance and its special custodial role with regard to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and the third in Islam. Muslims refer to the compound as the Al-Haram/Al-Sharif.
When the shooting incident took place Sunday, the two countries were already at odds over an Israeli decision last week to put metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount. The installation of the new security measure came following a terror attack in which two Israeli policemen were killed on Friday, July 14, sparking a crisis with both the Palestinians and Jordan.
In spite of the mounting daily Palestinian protests at the entrance to the Temple Mount and the larger unifying calls against Israel in the Muslim world, Netanyahu was loath to back down lest it be perceived as a sign of weakness. He was also under pressure from the right flank of his party to stand strong on the matter.
Jordan’s King Abdullah was under similar political pressure to take a stand against Israel over the Temple Mount, while also seeking to avoid a crisis with Israel and the US, with whom he is strongly aligned.
Rather then breaking off ties, both leaders used the shooting incident to wager a behind the scenes deal that allowed both Netanyahu and King Abdullah to claim victory. There was no formal declaration of a quid per quo, but the events went like this:
On Sunday night, Mohammad Jawawdeh, 16, stabbed the Israeli embassy security guard in the stomach with a screwdriver while moving furniture into his apartment in the embassy’s compound in Amman.
The guard immediately defended himself by shooting and killing Jawawdeh. He also fatally wounded the building’s owner who was at the scene. According to The Jordan Times the owner, Bashar Kamel Hamarneh, was an orthopedic surgeon.
Jawawdeh’s family declared his innocence and cries quickly grew in Jordan for the arrest of the Israeli security guard on charges of murder for both deaths.
But on Monday night, at around 11 p.m. the guard along with the embassy staff, including Jordan’s Ambassador to Israel Einat Schlein, crossed over the Allenby Bridge from Jordan Israel.
A few hours later a message from the Prime MInister’s Office announced that the security cabinet had decided to remove the metal detectors.
Netanyahu thanked US President Donald Trump for working to resolve the issue both through his son-in-law Jared Kushner and by sending his envoy Jason Greenblatt to the region. He also expressed his gratitude to King Abdullah.
Jordan then said that its investigation showed that the incident stemmed from a disagreement with regard to the furniture, but that the guard had opened fire after he was attacked, thereby providing justification for the permission granted for him to leave the country.
It is not the first time that Netanyahu has made such a deal with Jordan. The most serious crisis between the two countries occurred in September 1997, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister.
The fledgling ties were first threaten in March when a Jordanian soldier Ahmed Daqamseh killed seven Israeli school girls from the AMIT Fuerst Zionist junior high school in Beit Shemesh while they were on a field trip to the Island of Peace on the edge of the Jordan River. Another six or seven school girls were injured.
Jordan’s leader at the time, King Hussein, traveled to Israel and paid a condolence call to the families of the slain girls and visited the injured in the hospital.
Daqamseh was tried in Jordan and sentenced to a 20-year jail term. He has since been released.
This was followed by a much larger crisis in September 25th when two Mossad agents poisoned Khaled Mashal, who at the time was the head of Hamas in Jordan.
The plot was foiled when Jordanian security forces captured the two Mossad agents. US President Bill Clinton intervened.
Under threat of sabotaging the fledgling peace deal, the situation was resolved by a behind the scenes deal that a number of outstanding issues.
Netanyahu agreed to provide the antidote to the poison. Israel also released Palestinian and Jordanian prisoners, including Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Israel would later assassinate him in 2004.
In return, Jordan freed the two Mossad agents it had held in jail and allowed them to return to Israel.
That deal much like this one, appears to be a testament to the strength of the ties between the two countries that rest heavily on mutual interest particularly at time when radical forces linked to Islam, such as ISIS, are fighting for control of the region.
Jordan geographically straddles the divide divide moderate and extremist forces in the region. It borders both Israel and two countries where ISIS forces are located, Syria and Iraq.
King Abdullah has historically had close ties with the US, including with US President Donald Trump who he has spoken with in person twice since the American president took office in January.
Jordan received more than $1 billion annually in financial assistance from the US It is an important partner in the American led coalition against ISIS and the two countries have led joint military exercises.
Such aid is important to Jordan where unemployment is high and where the population has grown from 6.6 million in 2010 to 9.7 million in 2017. Similarly Jordan is helped financialy by Israel. The two countries signed a 15-year natural gas deal in 2014. This was followed a year later by a massive water deal. Jordan also uses Israeli ports for to export and import goods to make up for the loss of it former trade route that traversed regions that are now in conflict.
But King Abdullah must balance these financial concerns with the politics of staying in power in a country, where one third of the population is Palestinian and the mood on the street is anti-Israel.
In November 2014 King Abdullah withdrew the Jordanian Ambassador for three months, after clashes broke out between the Israeli police and Muslim worshipers on the edge of the Temple Mount.
Less than a year later, in the fall of 2015, tensions broke out once again over Jordanian fears that Israeli security measures had shattered the status quo on the Temple Mount that limits prayers to Muslim worshipers. Comments to that effect by Palestinian and Jordanian leaders helped spark a wave of violence that lead to the deaths of 55 people in terror attacks.
Former US Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the region to broker a deal, that was never actualized, in which Israel would be able to place security cameras on the Temple Mount.
The resolution of the latest Temple Mount flare up, could be seen as a positive sign for Netanyahu’s continued assertion that for moderate countries, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less of a priority then the lager regional battle radicalized forces.
But the dizzying speed by which relations with Israel’s most stable regional partner almost fell apart is also a reminder of the force of the conflict within the larger political configuration or the Middle East, particularly when it crosses the line into a religious battle.