Jordan’s crown prince steps to the fore amid strained relations with Israel

Jordan's King Abdullah and Crown Prince Hussein arrive for the opening of the fourth ordinary session of the 18th Parliament in Amman, Jordan November 10, 2019. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Jordan’s 26 year-old Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah is taking a higher profile in the country’s diplomacy. He was scheduled to make his first-ever visit to Jerusalem last week, but it was cancelled due to differences with Israel, apparently regarding his security detail. The incident has further strained the already poor relations between the royal palace and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The crown prince, a graduate of Georgetown University and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, is no stranger to the world of international politics. In 2015, he became the youngest person ever to chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. He also addressed the U.N. General Assembly in 2017.

In early March, King Abdullah II and the crown prince traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shortly after the Biden administration had released a damning intelligence report that held the Saudi prince responsible for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. The Saudis have pressed all their allies to demonstrate support for the embattled heir-apparent. The visit was undoubtedly a reluctant but necessary step in maintaining Jordan’s troubled relations with its wealthy Gulf neighbor.

The planned visit to Jerusalem last Wednesday was a mechanism to reinforce Jordan’s responsibility for the management of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in the city. This responsibility is enshrined in Article 10 of the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. (In recent remarks to Brookings, the king repeated this point, specifically mentioning the Hashemite custodianship over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.) It serves as an important source of the Hashemite monarchy’s legitimacy. The Jordanians believe that Netanyahu, with the support of the Trump administration, was trying to squeeze the Jordanians out of Jerusalem — possibly to be replaced by the Saudis. The Saudis might have an interest to move closer to Israel, to curry favor with the Biden administration, in the context of which their desire for a role in Jerusalem may resurface.

Hussein had chosen a propitious night to visit the Noble Sanctuary, or Harem al Sharif, in Jerusalem, the home of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque. Al-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj marks the anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed’s mystical night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then his ascension to heaven and return to earth. The night journey symbolizes Jerusalem’s importance in Islam.

Accounts differ over why the visit was stopped. The Israelis say the prince’s party had significantly more security guards with more weapons than had been agreed. The Jordanians say the Israelis were intending to close the sanctuary to others as part of the security arrangements, thereby disrupting Muslims’ access on the important night and the crown prince did not want to deny others access for prayer. Security cooperation between the two countries’ intelligence services is normally excellent, and not political, so the issue is puzzling.

In response to what they saw as the Israeli disruption of the crown prince’s visit, Jordan delayed granting overflight clearance for Netanyahu to fly to Abu Dhabi to visit the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and meet with its crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayid, the architect of the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel. Last Friday, the Jordanian foreign minister said the delay was a deliberate retaliation for blocking a “religious visit.” The Netanyahu trip to Abu Dhabi was widely seen in Israel as an election stunt for the March 23 elections. The disagreement has now reportedly been resolved, and Jordanian overflight permission apparently granted, but Netanyahu’s visit has been canceled.

The incident is another important setback for the Jordan-Israel peace treaty. It has been cold ever since Netanyahu ordered the Mossad to try to assassinate a senior Hamas official in Amman in 1997. The attempt was botched and it ended then-King Hussein’s hopes of working with Netanyahu. The relationship has never recovered, and has gone downhill. The blocked visit to Jerusalem is another step down. A successful visit to Jerusalem for religious purposes would have been a strong affirmation of the crown prince’s role in Jordan and a source of support for the young heir. Instead it was a missed opportunity.

King Abdullah is by all accounts healthy and fit. But he is approaching the age when his father was diagnosed with cancer. It is wise to get the crown prince ready. His namesake grandfather inherited the throne at age 17 and had a rocky start.

President Joe Biden should reaffirm American support for the Jordanian role in Jerusalem in accordance with the peace treaty. A public reaffirmation would be a boost for the country’s stability and the monarchy’s legitimacy. It would be a useful reaffirmation of American support for a comprehensive peace process that includes Jordan which was systematically ignored by President Trump.