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Jordan’s king says he’s ready for conflict if the status of Jerusalem’s holy sites changes as Israel prepares to swear in what will likely be the most right-wing government in its history.
King Abdullah II told CNN’s Becky Anderson in an exclusive interview this month that there is ‘concern’ in his country about those in Israel trying to push for changes in his custody. Muslim and Christian saints in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, warning that it has “red lines”.
“If people want to come into conflict with us, we are completely ready,” he said. “I always like to believe that, let’s look at the glass half full, but we have certain red lines…And if people want to push back those red lines, then we’ll deal with it.”
Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government is expected to be the most right-wing in Israel’s history and it includes controversial figures who were once considered to be on the extreme fringe of Israeli politics. This has raised concerns about the possibility of an escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence and for the future of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors and Western allies.
This year has already been the deadliest for Palestinians and Israelis in nearly two decades, raising the specter of a new Palestinian uprising against Israel.
“We have to worry about a coming intifada (uprising),” the king said. “And if that happens, it’s a complete breakdown of law and order from which neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will benefit. I think there is a lot of concern from all of us in the region, including those in Israel who are on our side on this issue, to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war, but signed a peace treaty with it in 1994 under which it formally recognized Amman’s special role in the city’s holy sites. But the two have since had a rocky relationship, with Jordan regularly accusing Israel of breaching the agreement that gave it control of the sites and banned non-Muslims from praying there.
The Hashemite Monarchy of Jordan has been the guardian of Jerusalem’s holy sites since 1924 and sees itself as the guardian of the religious rights of Muslims and Christians in the city.
Tensions are highest on the complex known to Muslims as Haram Al Sharif, which is called the Temple Mount by Jews. The site includes the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The area is also the holiest site in Judaism. Israeli right-wing politicians often argue that Jews should also have the right to pray there.
One of the most controversial figures in Israel’s new government is Itamar Ben Gvir, who is expected to become national security minister and take control of the police, including law enforcement at holy sites in Jerusalem. Ben Gvir has a long history of inciting violence against Palestinians and Arabs. He was found guilty of inciting anti-Arab racism and supporting terrorism and openly called for changing the status quo at holy sites.
“I don’t think these individuals are under a simple Jordanian microscope. They are under an international microscope,” the king said, responding to a question about Ben Gvir’s views. “I have to believe that there are also a lot of people in Israel who are as worried as we are.”
He declined to say how Jordan would react to changes in the status of holy sites. “Ultimately, the Israeli people have the right to choose who they want to lead them… We will work with anyone and everyone as long as we can bring people together,” he said.
Of Jordan’s population of approximately 10 million, more than half are of Palestinian origin, including more than two million Palestinian refugees.
Jordan was the second Arab country to normalize relations with Israel, after Egypt. But after decades of waiting, Israel won a major diplomatic victory in 2020 by securing recognition from four other Arab states, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
The nation’s relationship with Israel is under intense scrutiny in the country, with many opposing closer ties over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Israel’s integration into the region is ‘extremely important’, but it ‘will only happen if there is a future for the Palestinians’, the king says, pointing to Arab football fans’ overwhelming support for the Palestinians during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
The king has stepped up efforts to shed light on the status of Christians in the Middle East in recent times. In September, he proclaimed to the United Nations General Assembly in New York that Christianity in Jerusalem was “under fire,” a message that the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem endorsed.
Some churches in the Holy Land have also sounded the alarm over the status of Christians there. In a Christmas message this week, the heads of the Jerusalem Churches, a grouping of Palestinian churches, issued a statement decrying “aggression” against their religious exercise and “unjustified restrictions” on worship. In July, the High Presidential Committee for Ecclesiastical Affairs in Palestine issued a statement condemning an attack by “extremist Israeli settlers” on the Church of the Holy Spirit and the Greek Garden, accusing the Israeli government of complicity through “inaction ” in the detention of the authors. to estimate.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat told CNN that church leaders “have full access to all government authorities for their concerns,” adding that acts of violence “on any community are condemned by the government and are being investigated with the utmost seriousness by the Israeli police.”
“The State of Israel remains committed to safeguarding freedom of religion and worship for all, including the Christian community, in Jerusalem and other holy places,” he said.
King Abdullah told CNN that churches in Jerusalem are facing “political on the ground” challenges, which is putting pressure on the Christian community.
“It is not a national policy, but there are those who join governments who have very extreme views towards Muslims and Christians, as there are obviously on the other side, and we must unite against this,” he said.
Christians in the Middle East are “part of our past, they are part of our present and they must be part of our future”, he added.
Jordan has become a haven for Christians in the Middle East for much of the past two decades as neighboring countries have been embroiled in conflicts that have driven some of the oldest Christian communities in the world to flee their country of origin.
In December, the monarch launched a master plan to develop Bethany Beyond the Jordan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where Christians believe Jesus was baptized. The plan aims to build housing, museums and amphitheaters that can accommodate up to 1.5 million tourists a year.
“I think one of the things that people misunderstand about this place is how inclusive it is. Almost 15% of visitors who come here are Muslim,” he told CNN: “So this is an opportunity to break down those barriers and show how proud we are not only of our historic Christian heritage here in Jordan, but also of the relationship between Christianity and Islam.”
People in the Middle East “just want to move on”, the monarch said. “So as difficult as 2022 has been and as difficult as the dangers of 2023 are, there is an opportunity for us to move beyond.”
This can be done through regional integration, he said.
“I have moved away from feeling that politics will solve our problems. It is an economic dependency,” he said. “When I’m invested in your success because your success is my success, ultimately it means we can move forward.”
With additional reporting from CNN’s Mike Schwartz in Jerusalem.