In its handling of the Jordan embassy crisis, the government put public opinion before Israel’s foreign policy needs, embarrassing an important ally, and closed the embassy precisely when it was most needed, according to Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.
“The unquenchable necessity to placate Israel’s public opinion at every turn… as opposed to maintaining a relationship with our strategic neighbor is characteristic of this entire situation,” Halevy told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation.
The former spymaster also offered sharp criticism of Israel’s handling of the controversy surrounding the Temple Mount. Turning the issue into one of sovereignty rather than security as several senior lawmakers did, was “totally unnecessary” and escalated the situation, he said.
Halevy, who was instrumental in the negotiations for the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty, said the government created a false, or at least greatly exaggerated, narrative of the embassy being under siege and in need of rescue so that it could appear to swoop in and save the day.
The London-born Halevy said it was “inexplicable” that the Israeli embassy in Amman was left empty following the incident.
“If there is a moment when the presence of an Israeli embassy in Jordan is required more than ever before, it’s now,” he said.
And yet, Halevy said, “we are celebrating the closure of the Israeli embassy in Jordan as a great success.”
According to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, on Sunday evening, a security officer, who can only be identified by his first name, Ziv, was stabbed by 17-year-old Mohammed Jawawdeh, who was in an embassy residence installing a bedroom set.
Ziv opened fire on Jawawdeh, killing him and a second man, Bashar Hamarneh, at the site, in what the ministry said was self-defense.
The situation quickly devolved into a diplomatic crisis, with Jordan demanding the officer be detained and questioned by local authorities and Israel refusing on the grounds that he had diplomatic immunity.
Following a tense day of negotiations on Monday, the entire embassy staff, including Ambassador Einat Schlein, returned to Israel, with Ziv receiving a hero’s welcome, complete with a personal meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which was extensively photographed and publicized.
Asked why it decided to remove all staff from the embassy, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “We do not comment on security-related matters.”
Halevy raised the question of how Israelis would have responded had the situation been reversed and two Israelis had been killed by a Jordanian security officer at the Jordanian embassy in Tel Aviv. The public, he said, would have been “very upset, up in arms, deeply offended and extremely critical” that Jordanian feelings trumped Israeli ones.
On Thursday afternoon, King Abdullah II of Jordan’s official Twitter account published tweets in both Arabic and English, warning Netanyahu that he had to “honour his responsibilities & ensure justice, instead of using the crime for political showmanship.”
This came after, the Hashemite kingdom’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said it was a “disgrace” that Netanyahu had publicly welcomed and warmly embraced the security officer, during a television interview on Wednesday night.
“It would be appropriate if Israel acted diplomatically,” Safadi added.
On Thursday, Jordan also reportedly said it would not allow the Israelis back until it received “guarantees” from Israel that Ziv would stand trial.
In recent weeks, Jordan’s government has been under great pressure from its people for appearing to kowtow to foreign countries.
Even before the latest outburst on the Temple Mount, the conviction and sentencing to life imprisonment of a Jordanian soldier, who shot dead three American trainers on a Jordanian air base last year, roiled the local population, who see it as a capitulation to foreign pressure.
“There were significant riots against the Jordanian government by the influential Howeitat tribe for what they view as a sham trial designed to appease the United States,” said Aaron Magid, a former Amman-based journalist who still writes about Jordan.
Jordan’s calls for “guarantees” that Ziv would stand trial are also not unexpected. Jordanians likely see similarities between Sunday’s case and an incident in 2014, in which a Palestinian-Jordanian judge, Raed Zeiter, was killed by Israeli troops at the Allenby Crossing, Magid said. In that case, Israeli soldiers claimed Zeiter attacked them, forcing them to open fire. Yet, that account of the events was denied by several eyewitnesses. Israel promised an investigation, but nothing ever materialized from it.
In his back-to-back tweets, the king also mentioned this case, saying the “handling of embassy case, the killing of Judge Zuaiter (sic) & other cases will have direct impact on our relations.”
On Wednesday, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported that Ziv would be questioned by police on suspicion of manslaughter, though the inquiry was said to be routine.
As a signatory to the Vienna Convention, Israel is required to investigate suspects upon their return from a host country that provided diplomatic immunity for charges against them.
The Foreign Ministry has yet to announce when the embassy staff will return.
Halevy, who led the Mossad from 1998 to 2002, compared the situation to a similar one from 20 years ago in which the Israeli embassy in Amman was besieged after four Mossad agents fled there following a botched assassination attempt on Khaled Mashaal, who now serves as the head of the Hamas terrorist organization’s politburo but who was then the group’s Jordanian branch chief.
The anger over Sunday’s shooting was coming mainly from the street, while in 1997, the public ire was exceeded by that of then-king Hussein, who sent troops — led by his son, the current monarch Abdullah II — to surround Israel’s embassy.
Majalli Wahabi, a former Knesset member who played a key role in negotiating the aftermath of the 1997 Mashaal debacle, noted that both sides then “knew how to sit and parse the issue with the expectation of a solution and agreement.”
Over the course of three days, Halevy, Wahabi and other Israeli officials negotiated an agreement with Jordan, in which Israel released a number of Palestinian and Jordanian prisoners, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a founder of Hamas, its spiritual leader and the spiritual father of Hamas suicide bombers.
While the price was dear for Israel, “everyone came out satisfied,” Wahabi told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation.
During those three days in 1997, the Israeli embassy in Amman was “more or less held under siege” by Jordanian forces threatening to storm the embassy, Halevy said. This week, however, Jordanian security forces were the ones helping provide security for the embassy officials as they made their way to the Allenby Crossing into Israel.
Even after King Hussein showed “royal compassion” and the crisis was resolved in 1997, “there was a lot of tension. The Jordanian street was steaming with anger,” Halevy said.
“Yet the staff of the embassy, led by the ambassador Oded Eran, stayed there in a very tense situation. And that night Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Jordan for a meeting I had arranged with Jordanian leadership,” he said.
“Tension was very high, but at no moment was Israel requested to remove its staff from the embassy, and no one in Israel suggested it either.”
There was no need to publicize the fact that late Monday night the embassy staff called the prime minister just after getting through the Allenby Crossing, he said, as if the situation were similar to that of the 2011 attack on the Israeli embassy in Egypt in which a mob stormed the compound in Cairo and American intervention was needed to resolve the crisis.
Crafting the narrative
When Halevy brought back the four Mossad agents 20 years ago, there was “no fanfare, no celebration,” as was the case late Monday night when Ziv was treated as someone who “valiantly won the day,” he said.
The former Mossad chief noted that the full details of what happened between Ziv and Jawawdeh have yet to be revealed. However, the incident is reportedly being treated as an argument that got out of hand, rather than a terror attack.
“If you want to receive him, do it privately, –but to do it in public?” he said.
Halevy noted that the off-duty IDF soldier who put an end to last Friday night’s terror attack in the Halamish settlement, in which three members of the family were stabbed to death, did not receive the same level of personal praise from the prime minister.
“Nobody telephoned him, nobody lauded him,” Halevy said. (Within the military, the soldier’s actions are being widely praised. On Thursday, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported that he’s being considered for a medal of distinction for his actions.)
According to Halevy, the presentation of Ziv as a returning hero and the abandonment of the embassy were meant to set up “a narrative that was contrary to the fact,” which was “necessary for image purposes” but not for the real needs of the people.
“The normal Israeli now is rejoicing in the saving of the Israeli embassy staff,” he said.
On Thursday afternoon, the Temple Mount crisis appeared on the cusp of resolution, following an Israeli decision to remove all the security measures set up outside the holy site after three Arab Israeli terrorists shot dead two police officers nearby with guns they had smuggled into the compound. But those hopes were dashed for the time being after clashes broke out between worshipers and police on the holy site once a boycott called by Muslim authorities on the faithful entering the site had ended.
The Jordanian Waqf, a religious body that oversees the complex, called Thursday morning for Muslims to return to pray at the site, as did Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
According to Halevy, the nearly two weeks of daily protests, violence and general unrest stemmed from the “totally unnecessary” decision by senior Israeli officials to turn the issue into one of sovereignty as opposed to security needs.
“If you say, we’re in charge of the area and we’re responsible for security in the area and therefore we have to take measures to provide security, that is one thing,” the former spymaster told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation.
But an argument over who has sovereignty over the Temple Mount is a zero-sum game. “It is a matter that cannot be resolved except by having one satisfied party and one party that is down and out,” he said.
The word sovereignty is being “used by Israeli ministers all the time. All the senior Israeli ministers are mentioning the word sovereignty like they say ‘Shema Yisrael’ in the morning,” Halevy lamented, referring to a daily Jewish prayer.
This framing of the issue continued on Thursday, after the removal of the metal detectors, cameras and structures that had been set up.
“Yesterday, I heard my friend [Likud MK] Avi Dichter, the chairman of the [Knesset’s] Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, speaking on Israel Radio and he mentioned this sovereignty 10 or 20 times,” Halevy said on Wednesday.
“We have already seen the victory celebrations of those who tried this week to show a different sovereignty. There is Israeli sovereignty. This is a place that we will protect under all circumstances at any stage, in any situation,” Jerusalem Police Chief Yoram Halevi told reporters outside the Western Wall on Thursday.
Halevy warned that the sovereignty argument is a “recipe for widespread disaster for a very, very long time to come.”
He added: “And when I say disaster, it means to say that it could ignite a series of acts and counteracts that lead us down the drain to hell.”