Israel-Jordan Reconciliation: Better Late Than Never

Prof. Elie Podeh January 2018

Six months after an Israeli security guard killed two Jordanian citizens (his attacker and a second man who was shot accidentally), the solution for the crisis which marred relations between the two countries has finally been found.

Israel expressed its regret over the incident and promised to continue the legal proceedings, as well as pay damages to the families of the two citizens and to the family of PalestinianJordanian judge Raed Zeiter, who was shot to death at the Allenby Bridge border crossing in March 2014. In return, the Israeli Embassy in Jordan will return to full activity, although Ambassador Einat Shlain will not return to her post and will be replaced by a new ambassador.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that “Israel attaches great importance to its strategic relations with Jordan, and the two countries will act to advance their cooperation and to strengthen the peace treaty between them.” But if Israel really attaches so much strategic importance to these relations, why did it wait six months before solving the issue?

This isn’t the first time that Israel’s relations with Jordan are marred by a security incident. In March 1997, a Jordanian soldier killed seven Israeli schoolgirls who were visiting the Island of Peace site in Naharayim. Jordan’s King Hussein rushed to calm the situation down: He cut short a visit to Spain and came to Israel to offer condolences to the victims’ families. He also issued an apology for the schoolgirls’ murder.

Several months later, Israel tried to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashal on Jordanian soil. The operation failed, several Mossad fighters were captured by the local police and others found shelter in the Israeli Embassy building. Then-Mossad Director Danny Yatom was quickly sent by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to brief the king on the details of the operation. His request to release the detained agents was turned down, but the crisis was solved within 12 days after several Israeli officials, including Efraim Halevy and Ariel Sharon, made efforts to calm the king down. Halevy’s proposal to release Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from Israeli prison was the compensation accepted by Jordan.

In August 2011, shortly after the January 25 Revolution which led to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, seven Israelis were killed in a series of terror attacks on Highway 12. As part of Israel’s military response, an IDF force entered Sinai and killed five Egyptian policemen. The incident led to a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Egypt, which threatened to recall its ambassador. Two months later, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued an apology for the killing of the Egyptian policemen, bringing the crisis to an end.

While each incident has its own unique characteristics, several insights can be drawn from these events: First of all, a quick response is highly important. It has the power of preventing the crisis, or at least preventing it from getting worse. It also shows that the other side sees the incident as important and understands the need to come up with an immediate solution.

Netanyahu did send the Shin Bet chief to Jordan immediately to try to solve the problem, but the Jordanian side didn’t feel that the Israeli government saw it as a top priority. The fact that it took six months to reach an agreement indicates that the Israeli government didn’t ascribe much importance to the crisis. Meanwhile, emotions in Jordan ran high against Israel.

Second, the political echelon’s involvement in the negotiations is highly important. The prime minister himself, or at least the defense minister, should lead the reconciliation move.

Third, we should know how to apologize. An apology isn’t a display of weakness, especially if it comes from a place of confidence and strength. Accidentally killing a Jordanian citizen is definitely a reason to apologize.

Fourth, Israel’s decision makers shouldn’t consider “their” public opinion in this case, but rather the public opinion in the other country. Part of the Jordanian anger was directed at way Netanyahu publicly greeted the ambassador and the security guard, in a bid to gain support in the Israeli public opinion. In light of the Jordanian sensitivity, the prime minister could have given up the photo-op and settled for a private rather than public meeting.

Finally, we should offer the other side compensation to convey that we understand the sensitivity on the Jordanian side, and especially its royal family, which has been standing by Israel for years—secretly and behind the scenes—when it comes to important security issues. In other words, the long-term interest overshadows the short-term interest.

We should welcome the agreement, and better late than never, but the decision-making process on the Israeli side—if such a process actually took place—must be criticized. The weak Israeli response emphasizes the absence of the Foreign Ministry, and the absence of a full-time foreign minister, from the process. In any event, we should hope the decision makers draw the lessons from this case and other past tensions with Egypt and Jordan and implement them in the next crisis.

Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches at the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

(originally published in Ynetnews)

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