Mar 17, 2021 - World

Israel-Jordan tensions rise over canceled trips and campaign rhetoric

Netanyahu (L) and King Abdullah in 2014. Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO/Getty Images

Israeli-Jordanian relations deteriorated into a crisis this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign helping to bring tensions to the brink of an explosion.

Driving the news: The crisis erupted on March 10 ahead of a visit by the Jordanian crown prince to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The unusual visit was intended to highlight Jordanian custodianship over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

  • Because of bad coordination between Israel and Jordan, several members of the crown prince’s security detail were not allowed to enter Israel. The Jordanians saw that as a violation of the understandings between the parties and canceled the visit.
  • A day later, Netanyahu intended to travel to Jordan to board a flight from Amman to Abu Dhabi for a historic first official visit to the UAE.
  • But the Jordanians didn’t give the Emirati plane a departure permit, thus delaying a trip that was to be a cornerstone of Netanyahu's election campaign.

Netanyahu retaliated by giving the Israeli civil aviation authority an unprecedented order to close Israeli airspace to flights to and from Jordan. Netanyahu made the decision unilaterally without consulting his Security Cabinet or defense and foreign ministers.

  • Civil aviation authority officials were stunned by the order and tried to convince the prime minister’s office to cancel it. They stressed that such a step would be a violation of Israel's peace treaty with Jordan and could have grave consequences.
  • Civil aviation officials played for time, holding off on notifying the Jordanians and hoping Netanyahu would cool down. Two hours after the order was given, it was overturned.
  • Senior Israeli officials tell me that if the decision had been communicated to the Jordanians, it would have dramatically escalated the crisis.

What they're saying:

  • Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said on CNN: “You renege on an agreement with Jordan, you disrupt a religious visit and then you expect to come to Jordan and fly out of Jordan? Let's be serious, is this something that can be expected?"
  • Netanyahu indirectly confirmed the incident in a series of interviews and used it to boost his campaign. He also downplayed the importance of the relationship with Jordan, saying, “I will be diplomatic and say that Jordan needs the peace agreement with Israel no less than Israel needs it.”

The big picture: The Israel-Jordan peace treaty was signed in 1994 under the auspices of then-President Bill Clinton. Every administration since has been deeply involved in cooling down tensions between the parties.

  • The Biden administration has not intervened so far in the current crisis. Israeli officials say the lack of attention from the Biden administration to the region and to this issue in particular has contributed to the latest escalation.

The backstory: Relations between Netanyahu and King Abdullah, already bad, became even worse during the Trump presidency.

  • Things were slowly improving over the last six months after Netanyahu backed away from his West Bank annexation plans.
  • Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi have also worked to improve relations and foster dialogue.
  • Both Gantz and Ashkenazi are former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff and see Jordanian stability as a strategic pillar in Israel’s national security.

What’s next: Senior Israeli officials are concerned that Jordan will take more retaliatory measures in its bilateral relationship with Israel and say urgent efforts are needed to cool down the situation.

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