King Abdullah meets Israeli PM Netanyahu in surprise Jordan visit -royal court

Maya Alleruzzo/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023.

AMMAN (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprise trip to Jordan on Tuesday for talks with King Abdullah, who the royal court said underlined the need for Israel to respect the status quo of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

Far-right Israeli national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir toured the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which Jews revere as the Temple Mount, under heavy security this month. The visit angered Palestinians and caused an outcry among Arab states.

The compound is Islam’s third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina, and Judaism’s most sacred site.

Abdullah told Netanyahu, who took office last month and whose visit to Jordan marks his first foreign trip since he came back to power, that Israel should respect the “historic and legal status quo in the Holy Aqsa mosque and not violate it,” the royal court said.

The monarch, who has had years of tense ties with Netanyahu during his past tenure as premier, was quoted as telling the Israeli leader that an end to violence was crucial to allow long-stalled peace talks to resume between the Palestinians and Israel.

Netanyahu’s office said the two leaders discussed regional issues, especially strategic, security and economic cooperation between Israel and Jordan.

Jerusalem is a particularly sensitive issue for Jordan’s Hashemite royal family as it is the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in the eastern part of the city.

Netanyahu’s return to power has deepened Jordan’s concerns that ultra-right policies, which include accelerated Jewish settlement building in Palestinian territories in the West Bank, will spark a new cycle of violence.

The kingdom fears provocative moves by ultra-right Jewish groups that perform prayers in the compound of Al-Aqsa which Muslims consider part of the mosque. There are concerns that the prayer area could inflame religious passions.

Jewish religious nationalists have increasingly toured the site and demanded rights for Jews to pray in the mosque compound in moves Jordan says undermine an arrangement in which Jews and non-Muslims are permitted to visit but not to pray. That arrangement has prevailed for years.

Jordan is a staunch ally of Washington and is home to many people of Palestinian descent. It is hopeful that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden will pressure Israel to preserve the status quo in the Al-Aqsa mosque, whose upkeep is paid for by Jordan.

Officials told Reuters that King Abdullah is expected to visit Washington at the end of January. He will hold talks with senior U.S. officials and possibly meet Biden and address the issue of Jerusalem and ways to push the stalled Middle East peace process.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Safadi, shortly after the Ben-Gvir visit. Blinken underscored the importance of preserving the historic status quo at the site, according to a statement by the State Department.