By now, President Obama recognizes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bullish, self-centered, and two-faced approach to politics; however, as they meet next week in Washington, can the U.S. really afford to turn a blind eye to his latest attempts to win support among right-wing voters? Even at the expense of his only cordial relation in the Middle East with neighboring Jordan?
The answer is a resounding no. Excluding the significance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its associated human losses, Netanyahu's recent adventures concerning Haram al-Sharif threaten to undermine the stability of Jordan - the U.S.' last reliable oasis of stability in the region. Losing Jordan risks wasting billions of dollars of stabilization investments, and could eventually endanger the lives of American civilian and military personnel. No option exists, except to rely on Jordan as the base from which to secure U.S. interests across the region.
At the center of the recent escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, in which 11 Israelis and at least 80 Palestinians were killed (almost half of them being subjected to extrajudicial execution by Israeli soldiers and settlers at the scene of the attacks), lies the status of Haram al-Sharif: a 35-acre compound that comprises Islam's third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Since 1924, the Haram al-Sharif or al-Aqsa Mosque, also known to Jews as the Temple Mount, remains under the custodianship of the Jordanians, but more so, its Hashemite Dynasty. For decades, the link to the holy site lent the Hashemites an important source of legitimacy in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims alike. That source of legitimacy highlights the important part they continue to play in balancing complex religious, tribal, and geographical rivalries in the region.
Israel understood the delicate role fulfilled by the Jordanians, and its importance in lessening the feeling of loss of the holy site for the Muslim world. As such, the Jordanian responsibilities toward Haram al-Sharif, (plus Christian sites in the Old City), continued unabated following the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. Furthermore, the 1994 Wadi Araba peace agreement between Jordan and Israel solidified Jordanian control and management of the holy site; despite, at times, Jordan choosing to suspend or adjust its level of support, as it did temporarily between 2000-2003. This, of course, did not stop Israel from undermining the physical status of the al-Aqsa Mosque from the early days of occupation, by embarking on an all-penetrating network of tunneling and archaeological excavations. The earliest tunnel excavated dates back to 1967, which occurred under the auspices of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA). It is part of a tunnel network, extending over 1,000 meters long and several meters deep. A joint Jordanian-Palestinian report submitted to UNESCO on the Israeli tunneling attributes structural damage in and around Haram al-Sharif and surrounding areas of the Old City, to past and ongoing Israeli excavation of these areas.
Clearly tempted by the state of flux in the Arab world, and the fact that the U.S. presidential election season is in full swing, extremist elements among the right-wing Israeli government could not resist testing the limits. A growing sentiment amongst conservatives in the Israeli political elite--led by agriculture minister Uri Ariel and Knesset member Moshe Feiglin--and the broader Israeli population increasingly call for a change to the status quo governing the right to pray within the Haram al-Sharif. In fact, since late 2013, visits to Haram al-Sharif by right-wing Israeli politicians and settlers have intensified and were accompanied by new efforts at the Knesset to introduce laws to reverse 1967/68 Israeli statutes. These efforts accordingly sought to restrict Muslim access to the site, and give permission for Jews to pray at the mosque. Thus, arousing memories among the Palestinians of the Israeli government's restrictions to the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron; where what started in 1994 as temporary limitations on when Palestinians could enter the mosque for worship ended up with the permanent partition of the site.
What should the US do?
Even as Israeli soldiers kill Palestinians using weapons furnished by the U.S., the U.S. does not condemn Israel for its continued policy of summary execution. In fact, during the recent surge of violence, the U.S. increased its military aid package to Israel. By continuing to support Israel through its generous military aid, the U.S. appears to condone the actions of extremist Jewish settlers and the extrajudicial killings of Palestinians by the Israeli army. From an Arab perspective, this unwavering support of the Israeli security establishment contradicts the U.S. stance on countering extremism. Combined with the threat Israeli action presents to Jordan's stability, the U.S. government needs to vocalize its support on three fronts:
1. Uphold publicly and unambiguously the custodianship of Jordan over the site.
The undermining of Hashemite control over the holy sites in Jerusalem directly affects King Abdullah II's ability to govern. If Abdullah can no longer enforce his custodianship of the holy sites of Jerusalem, his legitimacy as a ruler is compromised. King Abdullah recognizes the fragile state of his government, as popular protests have occurred in support of the Palestinians and calling for the cancelation of Jordan's peace treaty with Israel. In fact, for the first time since Jordan's war with Israel, calls from among East Bankers to establish an armed militia to act in support of the Haram al-Sharif are frequently made, given the government's inability to fend off Israeli advances.
Israel has a vested interest in the stability of Jordan. A collapse of the Jordanian government will de-stabilize one of the few remaining stable countries in the region. An unstable Jordan would find itself open to security threats from the so-called Islamic State (IS), which could spread to Israel from its eastern border. Refugees seeking safety in Jordan would overrun Israel, creating more problems beyond the ones it faces as a result of its occupation of Palestinian territory. From this perspective, Israel's interest should compel it to maintain the status quo of Haram al-Sharif, and bolster Jordan as its historical custodian.
2. Countering extremism and terrorism, regardless of its source.
Although the U.S. fights against Islamic extremism in the region, it does not denounce the violence committed by Jewish extremists. U.S. aid (official and private) to Israel funds the development of Jewish settlements on Palestinian occupied territory. If the U.S. wishes to appear more objective in its policy towards countering terrorism, it should add Jewish extremist groups like the "Temple Institute", the "Hilltop Youth" and the collection of Yitzhar settlers--who believe that they possess a biblical right to construct the third temple on the site housing the Dome of the Rock, and regularly commit price tag attacks on Palestinians--to the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database and freeze their assets. Ironically, these groups share the same apocalyptic vision that drives Muslim extremist groups, such as IS.
3. Call up on Israel to respect its international responsibilities as an occupying force.
In his last year in office, Obama could do well by reminding Israel of its obligations to uphold international law for the treatment of populations under occupation. Now that the Israeli army employs the practice of extrajudicial killings against Palestinian attackers, Israeli settlers adopted this policy by openly carrying guns and indiscriminately shooting Arabs. Even after the killing of Palestinians, Israeli authorities withhold the bodies of the deceased for extended periods of time. This practice continues even though the Jewish and Islamic faiths prescribe an expedient burial process immediately following a death. The Israelis should end this practice to restore a sense of dignity to the Palestinian populace and prevent further incitement of violence, keeping in mind that this time, the Palestinian response took shape from the grassroots level; no Palestinian leadership is in a position to restore order.