Egyptian and Jordanian Relations with Israel under Strain

Cairo and Amman are publicly cooling their relations with the Netanyahu government over its recent provocative steps on Jerusalem, which have stirred religious and nationalist sentiments in Egypt and Jordan. An added factor in the troubled Jordanian-Israeli relationship, in particular, is the unresolved dispute involving the shooting death last summer of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli embassy security guard in Amman, which resulted in the closing of the Israeli embassy in that city.

However, there have long been security ties between these two countries and Israel, much of them taking place behind the scenes. For Egyptian security officials, the Jerusalem issue pales in comparison to the need to reduce, if not eradicate, the terrorism problem in the Sinai and to weaken Hamas, and for that they believe they need the cooperation of the Israelis. Because of Jordan’s large Palestinian population, the country cannot easily ignore the Jerusalem issue. US President Donald Trump’s declared desire to punish the Palestinians in the wake of the Jerusalem controversy, which is widely seen as another favor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has further restricted the ability of Jordan’s King Abdullah II to mend fences with Israel over the short term.

Some Mutual Interests

Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries that have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, though some other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia and Morocco, have reportedly had back-channel communications with it for years. Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel has held since its inception in 1979, but through much of the Hosni Mubarak era (1981-2011) it was characterized as a “cold peace”: Egypt often opposed Israeli policies in the region (even to the point of withdrawing its ambassador from Tel Aviv at various times), and Mubarak was especially sensitive to Egyptian public opinion about his government’s relations with Israel.

Nonetheless, Egypt not only benefited financially from its relations with Israel by way of US largesse for keeping the peace, but also would use its ties to Israel to show its usefulness to the Arab world by conveying Palestinian and general Arab concerns to Israel through its own diplomatic channels. While there has been some economic cooperation between the two countries through the establishment of Qualifying Industrial Zones, which produce goods with Egyptian and Israeli inputs that are exported to the United States duty free, the level of bilateral trade between Egypt and Israel has never been very high.

After former President Mohammad Morsi was overthrown by then Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in the summer of 2013, bilateral Egyptian-Israeli relations did improve in large part because of mutual antipathy toward Hamas (which grew out of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood and had close links to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) and concerns about terrorist activities in the Sinai Peninsula. As a result of closer ties, Egypt was able to obtain Israeli permission to deploy more military personnel and equipment to certain areas of the Sinai than their peace treaty allows. Both Egypt and Israel have reportedly shared intelligence on the terrorist groups operating in the peninsula, such as Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province), which is affiliated with the so-called Islamic State (IS). In addition, Egypt has closed down hundreds of tunnels from the Sinai into Gaza that had been used for smuggling arms and militants, and it has reportedly allowed Israel to conduct drone strikes against IS targets in the Sinai.

These closer security ties have also produced closer political ties. In July 2016, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Israel, the first such trip by an Egyptian foreign minister in a decade. Although Shoukry reportedly conveyed the usual Arab positions on what it would take to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement—namely land for peace and a two-state solution—his visit suggested that Egypt could do business with Netanyahu despite widespread skepticism in the Arab world about the prime minister’s willingness to compromise. From Netanyahu’s perspective, closer ties with Arab countries like Egypt would divert attention away from the Palestinian question.

Such warm ties continued through September 2017, when Sisi and Netanyahu had a friendly meeting in New York during the time of the 72nd UN General Assembly. A

prominent senior analyst characterized the bilateral relationship then as the “highest level in [their] history.”

As for Jordan, it has long had a security relationship with Israel that predated the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 1994 during the height of the so-called Oslo peace process. As William Quandt and other experts have documented, in the late 1960s and early 1970s Israel and Jordan shared similar concerns about Palestinian radicals, and Israel came very close to intervening in Jordan in September 1970 to save King Hussein, when Syrian armed forces moved into northern Jordan in response to the Palestinian crisis.

Both King Hussein and his son, King Abdullah, have had to tread carefully since that time to show that they are protectors of the Palestinian cause. It is reported that Jordan’s population is about 60 percent Palestinian, so what happens next door in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem has a direct bearing on Jordanian stability.

As with Egypt, there have been periods when Jordan and Israel have gone through very difficult times. For example, in 1997, when Israeli intelligence agents in Amman poisoned Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, King Hussein was so incensed by this brazen attack on Jordanian soil that he demanded that Netanyahu, who was serving his first term as prime minister, provide an antidote for the poison and release a number of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Not wanting to scuttle diplomatic ties with Jordan, Netanyahu complied.

For his part, Jordan’s King Abdullah has developed ties with Netanyahu despite differences over Israeli settlement policies in the West Bank. The two share an antipathy toward Iran, and this has helped to foster strategic ties. Indeed, Abdullah was the first Arab leader to warn of a so-called “Shia Crescent” in 2014, and Netanyahu has been outspoken in his opposition to the Iranian regime as well as Iranian activities in the region, particularly in neighboring Syria.

In April 2017, in an interview during the time of his meeting with President Trump at the White House, Abdullah acknowledged that Iran’s growing influence in the region presented an opportunity to bring Israel and the Arabs closer together, but he went on to say that the Palestinian problem is standing between them. He added that if this issue is solved, “then this [will be] a new era of stability in our area, where the Israelis are truly part of the neighborhood.” King Abdullah also said he was impressed with Trump’s commitment to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He said both Egypt and Jordan have a “special relationship with Israel” but warned that if no progress were made on the peace process, the situation would put “more pressure” on the two countries.

New Tensions amid the Emotive Jerusalem Issue

Expectations for even closer ties with Israel and progress on the Palestinian crisis have hit significant snags, however. During this past summer, the Jerusalem issue resurfaced when Netanyahu temporarily closed the al-Aqsa Mosque in response to Palestinian protests against the military occupation, and put in place metal detectors at the entrances to the mosque. The Muslim Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), where the al-Aqsa Mosque is located, is considered the third holiest site in Islam. The decisions triggered widespread protests among Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza and inflamed Jordanian public opinion. The issue was especially sensitive to King Abdullah because he retains the title of custodian of the al-Haram al-Sharif. Two days later, on July 23, an Israeli embassy security guard in Amman shot dead two Jordanians allegedly in self-defense. Security officials in Jordan initially refused to release the guard to Israeli authorities, who cited diplomatic immunity, but the Jordanians relented a day later after Netanyahu called Abdullah. The leader of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency traveled to Amman and US diplomats intervened in the case. As part of the initial deal, Netanyahu agreed to remove the metal detectors and security cameras from the Haram al-Sharif.

However, when the Israeli security guard returned to Israel, he was treated as a hero by Netanyahu, which prompted an angry response from Abdullah, sharply criticizing the Israeli prime minister for his “provocative behavior.” Abdullah ordered the closure of the Israeli embassy in Amman and said it would not reopen until the Israeli security guard was brought back to Jordan to stand trial. With Israel refusing to do so, the situation remains stalemated and the Israeli embassy remains closed to this day.

The closure has also affected the bilateral relationship in other ways. For example, Israel notified Jordan in November that a joint agreement to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea would not go ahead until its embassy is Amman is allowed to reopen. The Jordanians are not budging from their position and have said they do not need Israel for the pipeline and are exploring funding with Saudi Arabia. It seems that national pride is at stake for both Israel and Jordan on this matter.

Dealing with the US-Israeli Nexus from Different Perspectives

Complicating matters is President Trump’s December 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and take initial steps to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This decision prompted demonstrations to break out in both Amman and Cairo—among a number of other cities—and put the two countries’ governments under new pressure to take some action because of public opinion.

Both Egypt and Jordan denounced the decision after Sisi and Abdullah, in separate phone calls to Trump, failed to dissuade him from going ahead with it. As a temporary member of the UN Security Council, Egypt felt obliged to use its position to introduce a resolution that condemned the decision, though without mentioning the United States directly. All members of the Security Council, except for the United States, voted in favor of the resolution.

Although the decision on the Jerusalem issue was taken unilaterally by the United States, the fact that it conformed to the position of, and was effusively praised by, the Netanyahu government meant in Arab eyes that the United States was no longer a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but was now acting as an unabashed partisan for the Israeli side. Hence, Egyptian and Jordanian relations with Israel became more problematic. On December 10, for example, the Jordanian parliament in a symbolic move voted unanimously to review the peace treaty with Israel.

The Trump Administration’s threat to cut aid to those states in the UN General Assembly who, a few days later, voted for a similar motion of condemnation of the Jerusalem decision added more fuel to the fire, but the threat did not prevent Egypt and Jordan from voting with the majority.

Moreover, Trump’s Jerusalem decision prompted the Netanyahu government to pass a law in the Israeli parliament that would make any Israeli decision on Jerusalem subject to a supermajority in the Israeli parliament (needing 80 votes out of 120 to pass). The law also gives the government the authority to change the boundaries of Jerusalem to play the demographic card by possibly excluding some Arab neighborhoods of the city.

However, there seems to be a difference in approach by the Egyptian and Jordanian governments. On January 6, the New York Times reported on a leaked conversation

between an Egyptian intelligence official and Egyptian television talk show commentators. The official allegedly said that while the Egyptian government would officially denounce the Jerusalem decision, the commentators should downplay the decision because “this thing will become a reality. Palestinians can’t resist and we don’t want to go to war. We have enough on our plate as you know.” The intelligence official purportedly went on to suggest that Ramallah, not Jerusalem, would be the capital of a future Palestinian state and appeared to play down differences between the two cities. He also warned that a new intifada among Palestinians would embolden Hamas to the detriment of Egyptian security interests.

Not surprisingly, given the sensitivity of the Jerusalem issue, Egyptian officials have

refuted the New York Times story and have claimed that Egypt’s official position is the same as the one was taken at the United Nations and other international bodies “despite U.S. threats of [an] aid cut.” In fact, an Egyptian lawyer presumably representing the government, filed suit against the newspaper, accusing its reporters of publishing “false news.”

Given their country’s large Palestinian population, it is hard to imagine officials in Jordan, even privately, reacting in a similar fashion to this controversy. Although both the Egyptian and Jordanian governments believe that Trump has put them in a bind, followed by more provocative actions by Netanyahu, Egyptian officials privately seem more willing to accept these decisions than their counterparts in Jordan. In other words, Egypt is much more willing to place its own state interests above those of Palestinians, even though Jerusalem as an issue transcends the Palestinian case—the city being home to the three Abrahamic faiths. King Abdullah, on the other hand, sees his policies (and his fate) as inextricably linked to that of the Palestinians. Moreover, as custodian of the Haram al-Sharif, he would also be losing some of his own legitimacy should he acquiesce to the US and Israeli positions on Jerusalem. And Trump’s more recent statements about withholding aid to the Palestinians, in light of their opposition to his Jerusalem decision and their unwillingness to meet with US officials, suggest that Jordan is unlikely to mend fences with the Israelis anytime soon.

Implications for the United States

Some US officials may take satisfaction in knowing that Trump’s decision on Jerusalem is being acknowledged as a “reality” by some Egyptian officials, even though they were angered that Egypt took the lead in the UN Security Council to push forward a resolution condemning this decision. But the fact that the report was leaked to the New York Times suggests that there is dissension within the Sisi government itself—a worrisome development for Washington. Coupled with widespread popular opposition to the Jerusalem decision (for example, both the Grand Imam of al-Azhar and the Coptic pope have said they would not meet with Vice President Mike Pence when he travels to the region), Trump officials should be alarmed that US standing in Egypt is again on a downward spiral. And for all of the reasons stated earlier, the US position in Jordan is in free fall.

Washington needs to repair its standing with Egypt and Jordan—the only two Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel—if it hopes to revive the peace process and have other Arab countries develop their own diplomatic ties to Israel. For a start, Trump should drop any talk of cutting aid to the Palestinians and walk back the Jerusalem decision, perhaps saying the US recognizes West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and leaving East Jerusalem to be negotiated by the parties. By not doing this and claiming that Jerusalem is “off the table,” as he said in a recent tweet, Trump runs the risk of not only failing to achieve a historic peace deal but inadvertently working to keep Israel isolated in the area despite regional concerns about Iran.