Analysis: Looking to Abdullah, because Abbas won’t douse the flames

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Unlike the US, Jordan is not a “mediator or observer” in the Middle East diplomatic process, but a “stakeholder,” Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said Saturday night in Amman, alongside US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“When it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli peace, all of the final status issues between the Palestinians and the Israelis touch the very heart of Jordan’s national security and national interests,” he said.

Jordan, Judeh continued, “has a special role in Jerusalem, and His Majesty King Abdullah II is the custodian of Christian and Muslim holy sites in the holy city. When it comes to the other final status issues such as borders, security, water – no arrangement can be reached, no final arrangement can be arrived at, without the input and active participation of Jordan.

We’ve made that clear from the beginning. So from the perspective of final status negotiations, from the perspective of the complexity of the issues that we see in Jerusalem, Jordan has not just an interest, but a very key and active role. ”To those words, both Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could easily answer “amen,” and add the hope that Jordan will play a more active role.

As the Mideast strategic thinkers in the State Department are continuing with their reassessment of how to proceed with the diplomatic process – following last year’s breakdown of the Kerry-led negotiations between Israel and the PA – one thing should be clear: it’s going to be impossible to get Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to work together.

Forget about it; it’s not going to happen. The enmity, the distrust, is too deep. And Abbas, with his words of praise for every drop of blood spilled for Jerusalem, his rant about Jewish feet defiling the Temple Mount, and his blatant lie about the Israeli execution of a 13-year-old Palestinian youth who went on a stabbing spree in Jerusalem, has also further alienated the Israeli center.

Kerry and leading diplomats in the EU may still view him as a large part of a future solution, but Netanyahu – and wider and wider swaths of the Israeli public – increasingly see him as a large part of the problem. Kerry, too, seems to understand this reality. In efforts to tamp down the violence, he looked as much during the current crisis toward Amman, as toward Ramallah.

Wise move. Abbas has shown through his comments and speeches over the last three weeks that he has little interest in dousing the flames – in fact, maintaining the flames serves his purpose.

More terrorism means more Israeli reactions, which means more crisis and more pressure from the international community to step in and stop the “cycle of violence.” Abbas wants more international involvement, and one way to ensure it is by ensuring there is a crisis.

As a result, it was clear that Abbas was not going to pull the burning coals out of the currently raging fire. Not only does he not want to, but the US leverage on him has proven scarce. And even if he did want to put a lid on the violence, it is not exactly clear how many people would heed his call. So, instead, the hopeful eyes of Kerry and others are cast toward Jordan, as the custodian of the Muslim sites in Jerusalem. Jordan does have an interest in tamping down the violence.

Abdullah is currently faced with strains on his government caused by an influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the north, concern about Islamic State from the east, and an ever-present agitation from the Muslim Brotherhood inside his kingdom. The last thing he needs right now is a conflagration in the West Bank that could conceivably lead to a Hamas overthrow of Abbas, which would send very destabilizing ripple waves into Jordan.

While the current crisis serves Abbas’s efforts to provoke the world to impose a solution on Israel, it does not serve Jordan’s interest of trying to maintain stability inside the kingdom during very tough times.

Second, the US – which provides Jordan with a billion dollars in military and economic aid a year and has some 2,200 military personnel stationed there – has a degree of leverage in Amman that it does not have in Ramallah.It was natural, therefore, that Kerry’s efforts to deescalate the situation would focus on Abdullah rather than Abbas. And, indeed, it was Abdullah who suggested the idea – swiftly approved by Israel – of placing 24-hour surveillance cameras on the Temple Mount.

If the impetus to the current wave of terrorism is the claim that Israel is endangering, threatening or planning to divide the Temple Mount, what better way to debunk that claim than have cameras constantly scanning that site?

The surveillance cameras – a telltale sign that Jordan is interested in dousing the flames – were an idea that Kerry characterized as a potential game-changer, and that Amman also welcomed as a “step in the right direction,” as were Netanyahu’s comments about Israel’s commitment to the status quo.

The initial Palestinian reaction was equally telling. PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called the idea an Israeli trap. “We are falling into the same trap once again,” he told a Palestinian radio station. “Netanyahu cannot be trusted. Who will monitor the screens of these cameras? Who will record the movements of those worshipers wishing to enter? How will these cameras be employed, and will the recordings later be used to arrest young men and worshipers under the pretext of incitement?”

And therein lies the reason why the thrust of the efforts to quell the tensions is currently focused more on Jordan than on the Palestinian Authority. While it is not certain any one party can douse the tensions, it is certain that Jordan – at least – wants to.

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