In one of the rooms of the Jordanian royal palace in Amman hangs a famous painting from 128 years ago by the artist Gustav Bauernfeind. This breathtaking piece of art depicts a group of Jews standing at the Cotton Merchant’s Gate, one of the entrances to the Temple Mount.
The artist himself wrote of the painting: “Before this gate stands a group of Jews, who are more or less extending their necks toward their Garden of Eden, which in the past was their national holy site, basking in the glow of the sunlight with various colors. … The gate’s guard — I almost said the Temple’s guard — holds a spear in his hand, preventing their entry. Inside the compound Muslims wander about, dressed in vibrant colors. A good contradiction, is it not?”
King Hussein, the late father of the current monarch, Abdullah, noticed the painting during a visit to Germany more than two decades ago. He fell in love with it immediately. His emissaries paid a fortune to buy it. Through his deft use of the paintbrush, Bauernfeind unwittingly provided the snapshot image that reflects the manner in which the Hashemite kingdom views itself — the guardian at the gate and legal custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.
The painting that Hussein loved so much describes the scene at the Cotton Merchant’s Gate in the 19th century, but it may as well encapsulate the prevailing contemporary reality on Temple Mount — Jews out, and Muslims, spears in hand, in.
The attitude of King Abdullah toward the Temple Mount and the Muslim holy sites there does not differ fundamentally from that of his father. Abdullah himself is named after his grandfather, who was assassinated 63 years ago on the steps of Al-Aqsa mosque. The Cotton Merchant’s Gate is not just a historical site for him.
To be more precise, the gate as well as the gate nearest to it, the Chain Gate, have become the focal point of a very business-like Israeli-Jordanian dialogue regarding the status quo on Temple Mount. For the first time in years, Israel was set to announce that it had come to an understanding with the Waqf whereby these two gates would serve as entrance points for tourists wishing to visit the Temple Mount, as had been custom since the days after the Six-Day War. Until now, tourists have come through Mughrabi Gate.
Those plans, however, were upended by the violent Muslim rioting on the Temple Mount and the series of murderous terror attacks that were largely inspired by the libelous claim of “Al-Aqsa is in danger.” For now, the authorities are making do with contingency plans aimed at calming tensions.
The details of these plans were hashed out in preliminary discussions between Jordanian officials and Israeli police and diplomatic representatives. The tripartite summit meeting in Amman between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jordan’s King Abdullah, and US Secretary of State John Kerry — just days before the brutal massacre of worshippers in a synagogue in the Har Nof section of Jerusalem — cemented the deal.
The meeting served two purposes. The first, and most obvious and immediate, was to lower the temperature and friction on Temple Mount. The other, not as explicit yet certainly a longer-term project, was to ensure the stability and survivability of the Jordanian regime, the fate of which has been a long-standing concern for both the U.S. and Israel.
The lowering of tensions on the Temple Mount and the removal of the supposed danger of changing the status quo at the site were mainly intended to appease the Jordanians, who have grown more apprehensive about the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. More importantly, however, these steps were aimed at allowing the Jordanian monarchy to demonstrate before the entire Arab and Muslim world that its status on Temple Mount — which is enshrined in the language of the peace treaty it signed with Israel — is not about to change.
Concern for the Jordanian regime’s stability is not far-fetched. The country’s demographics — with 20 percent of the population comprised of Bedouins and Arab tribes loyal to the king and which makes up the backbone of the military and security forces, and the other 80 percent Palestinian — is a source of constant worry for Western intelligence officials.
Jordan acts as a buffer between Israel and Iraq as well as between Syria and Saudi Arabia, the large petroleum exporter and wealthy U.S. ally. Jordan’s borders in the north and east are being menaced by Islamic State, which is trying to establish footholds in the Hashemite kingdom. In the capital, Amman, which is in southern Jordan, rallies have already been held to express support for Islamic State. Intelligence people in the West fear that this is only the beginning.
From Israel’s perspective, Jordan is a strategic asset from a regional-security standpoint. The peace treaty with Jordan freed Israel from the burden of reinforcing a long, convoluted border that is relatively close to its major population centers. If Jordan collapses, then Israel is liable to find itself in a dangerous situation on its eastern frontier, with armed militias and non-conventional fighters from Islamic State, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas posing a threat.
According to foreign press reports, the two countries continue to maintain close security and intelligence cooperation. Indeed, Israel has on numerous occasions warned the Jordanian authorities of subversive activities in their midst that were supposedly undermining the Hashemite government’s stability. The Atlantic, a prestigious American weekly newsmagazine, once reported that the Mossad had asked to use Jordanian airspace in order to bomb chemical weapons sites in Syria.
Israeli-Jordanian cooperation extends beyond security and defense issues. Jordan permits Israel to export goods from its territory to the Gulf states. Amman is also involved in the joint water canal project initiated by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The canal is designed to channel water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, balancing out the rapid drop in the water level. There are also plans to build a desalination plant in Aqaba that would be used by both Israel and Jordan, and Israel is supplying large quantities of natural gas to Jordan at considerable profit.
The U.S. also has vital interests in Jordan. According to foreign press reports, the Americans recently sent military advisers to Jordan to prepare for the possibility that the regime of President Bashar Assad would fall. It was also reported that the Jordanian military took part in drills and maneuvers with the armies of France, Britain, and the U.S.
The prospect of Jordan allowing Israeli jets to fly over its territory as part of a bombing mission against Iranian nuclear facilities was also discussed in the press. On its website, Newsweek ran a story detailing possible attack scenarios that took this option into account.
This has been the real backdrop to the series of meetings held in recent weeks between Netanyahu and King Abdullah. The Israeli defense establishment believes that the “cries of distress” heard in Jordan over the Temple Mount — which included Amman’s decision to order its envoy back from Israel for consultations — reflect a genuine crisis.
There is a real fear for the kingdom’s viability, while public opinion is enraged over the possibility that the gun-shy king, who has shown restraint in the face of the “fire” that has erupted surrounding the Temple Mount, will be the one who abandons the Islamic holy sites. As it has done in the past, Israel is showing willingness to pay steep prices, including on the Temple Mount, in order to appease its ally and neighbor to the east.
A special role for the kingdom
Not long after the Six-Day War, when informal ties between Jordan and Israel were maintained under the surface, then-defense minister Moshe Dayan, the father of the status quo on the Temple Mount, agreed to allow Jordan to plant its flag on the mosques at the site as part of a final peace settlement between the two countries.
Some Labor-led governments (helmed by Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol) were willing to confer ex-territorial status on the mosques on the Temple Mount and to hand over the day-to-day responsibility over them to Jordan, which would represent the Muslim world. In light of this approach, the manner in which Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were dealt with in the peace treaty with Jordan is not surprising.
Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad who was the deputy chief of the spy agency at the time that the Israel-Jordan peace treaty was signed, is the brainchild of the Jerusalem clause. In an interview with Israel Hayom, he reveals how the clause came about.
“Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were not mentioned in the agreement,” Halevy said.
“It was only in the later, advanced stages of negotiations, when the final wording of the document was just about agreed upon, that I received a message indicating that King Hussein requested that we add a clause in the agreement regarding Jerusalem.
“I was uneasy about this. It was not my mandate to deal with this issue. I brought the king’s proposed changes to the language to Rabin, who asked me to leave it with him for a couple of days so he could think about it. I know for a fact that he showed it to some people from outside of the political system. Two days later, he summoned me, and he approved the language that the king proposed. He even made concessions in order to further satisfy the Jordanians.
“From Rabin’s vantage point, this was a move that took the issue of Jerusalem out of the immediate dialogue with the Palestinians, instead turning it into a question that was to be settled with an additional interlocutor, the Jordanians, who had historic links to the holy city,” the former Mossad chief said. “At the time, there were rumblings about getting other countries involved, like Morocco and Saudi Arabia, two nations that view themselves as sharing a bond with the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem. They were competing with Jordan over that special status.”
Halevy recalls that the peace agreement with Jordan, which included the Jerusalem clause, was overwhelmingly approved by over 100 members of Knesset, although the peace treaty is well-remembered because of two individuals who did not vote in favor of its precisely because of the Jerusalem clause — Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Ze’ev Begin.
“Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem,” the clause reads. “When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines.”
I asked Halevy about the practical significance of this clause. Does Israel have sovereignty over the Temple Mount, as the government has pledged over again and as the High Court of Justice has affirmed? Or is Jordan the real custodian? Halevy said the question was “a very charged one,” one “that doesn’t really have an answer.”
The former Mossad chief says he is concerned about “provocative” statements about asserting Israeli sovereignty over Temple Mount, warning that “they are liable to escalate this conflict into a religious war that is far more destructive than anything we’ve seen thus far.”
“It’s very important to respect the peace treaty,” Halevy said. “When we sign an agreement with an Arab country, we aren’t living just in the moment or living in eternity. There are also the day-to-day matters that stretch out over years, and is these things that eventually shape the texture of our relationship with our neighbors.
“People do not accurately appreciate the necessity of proper relations with Jordan. This is a joint national interest. As part of my responsibilities at Mossad, I spent 13 years working on the Jordanian issue. I was there during the most tense, difficult moments. I would not recommend that anyone discount the importance of good ties with Jordan, even if there are hard feelings over the Temple Mount.”
A threatening cable
Indeed, when it comes to Jordan, it seems as if Israel — whether its premier is named Rabin, Sharon, or Netanyahu — is adopting the Halevy line. In 1967, Dayan empowered the Jordanian Waqf to manage the day-to-day affairs of the Temple Mount. In the early 1990s, when Saudi Arabia and Jordan were both vying for the right to refurbish the Dome of the Rock, Israel helped Jordan get the nod.
King Hussein hastened to sell a large mansion that he owned near London to the ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. He then donated $8 million to the Waqf so that it could replace the gold on the dome. The final day of the refurbishing nearly became a national holiday in Jordan, as the king’s subjects poured into the streets to celebrate.
In 2003, then-prime minister Sharon transferred responsibility for the maintenance of the eastern and southern walls around the Temple Mount to Jordan after cracks were discovered there. The move was opposed at the time by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Jordanian objections have also prompted Netanyahu to — at least for the time being — shelve plans to renovate the Mughrabi Bridge. Jordan is demanding that it be the one to oversee the renovation.
Dr. Shmuel Berkowitz, an internationally renowned expert on Jerusalem and the holy places and the author of the book The War of the Holy Places, revealed to Israel Hayom that Jordan reneged on a signed agreement with Israel regarding the Mughrabi Bridge because of a cable sent by the most important Sunni cleric alive today, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. In the cable, al-Qaradawi threatened King Abdullah, warning that the Palestinians in Jordan would stage a mutiny against his rule if he agreed to replace the Mugrabi Bridge.
Israel also accepted Jordan’s position regarding the Little Western Wall (which is an extension of the Western Wall, some 180 meters north of the plaza). So far, a Jordanian veto is standing in the way of plans to remove construction waste and trash from the site. In the wake of recent events, Jordanian pressure led to a postponement of a Knesset committee discussion over the status of the Temple Mount. Amman also led Israel to temporarily freeze a decision to close the site to all visitors — including Muslims — in the wake of the assassination attempt against Yehuda Glick. The closure lasted just one day. Nonetheless, Israel did reject a Jordanian request to build a fifth minaret on Temple Mount which would serve to exalt the special status of the Hashemite monarchy.
Even now, in the wake of the tripartite meeting between Abdullah, Netanyahu, and Kerry, a new reality has taken hold on Temple Mount. Two Fridays ago, Muslims of all ages were permitted to pray in the mosques. On the other hand, the restrictions on Jews entering the site have been made more severe. Police are only permitting a group of five Jewish visitors at a time to enter the area. When the group leaves, another group of five may enter.
The police have also place more stringent limits on a group of Muslim women known as Morbitat who have made a series of provocative visits to the site and who have ambushed groups of Jewish visitors who paid a trip to the area in recent months. The group was financially compensated by the northern branch of the Islamic Movement. Police are now denying many of them entry to the site.
As he has stated repeatedly in public, Netanyahu assured King Abdullah that Israel has no plans to change the status quo on Temple Mount. That means the ban on Jewish prayer at the site — which has been in effect since the Six-Day War — will remain intact.
Aside from mutual interests, Jordan’s relations with Israel are also motivated by its historic status on the Temple Mount. The Hashemite dynasty lost its position as custodian of the holy places in Mecca and Medina after the rise of the al-Saud family in the wake of the First World War. Hussein bin Ali, who served as the sharif and emir of Mecca, is an offspring of the royal Hashemite clan, whose forefathers view themselves as the progeny of the Prophet Mohammed.
Hussein died in 1931. He was interred on Temple Mount. His second son, King Abdullah I, succeeded him, becoming the first king of Jordan upon the country’s creation in 1946.
Abdullah I maintained a long-running dialogue with the heads of the yishuv in pre-state Israel. After the country’s founding, he held contacts with the Israeli government regarding a possible peace treaty. He was assassinated on July 20, 1951, just as the discussions were turning serious. The gunman, a follower of the grand mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, killed him in Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Abdullah’s grandson, Hussein, was ascended to the throne a short time later, witnessed the murder.
King Hussein is known for the peace treaty that he signed with Israel, which gave Jordan a formal status on Temple Mount. This status which Israel conferred upon the Hashemite kingdom was met with fury by the Palestinians, who have a long history of conflict with the Jordanians over Muslim seniority at the site.
Nonetheless, Hussein did not shy away from controversy. In a symbolic act, he flew his private jet over Jerusalem and Temple Mount while being escorted by an honorary guard of three Israeli F-15 fighter jets. His son, King Abdullah II, signed an agreement with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas eighteen months ago in which Ramallah formally empowered Jordan to represent its interests on Temple Mount and in Jerusalem “until a Palestinian state with its capital, Jerusalem, is founded.”
It is believed that Israel was involved in this move from behind the scenes. The agreement further cemented Jordan as the senior representative of the Muslim world on the Temple Mount.
Original Article: Israel Hayom