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An assassination few talk about, but now more relevant than ever!

This month's minor diplomatic crisis between Jordan and Israel echoed the assassination of the first king of Jordan. Here's the full story.

* Jordan's King Abdullah II and Crown Prince Hussein pray at the Tzofar enclave after the return of the territory from Israel, November 2019. (photo credit: TOI)

In the beginning of March this year, Hussein bin Abdullah, the Crown Prince of Jordan, was scheduled to visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This is definitely not something that happens often, however, the trip was officially cancelled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan at the last minute. Reports said that Jordan and Israel had a dispute over the security arrangements for the Prince’s visit to Israel’s most important Muslim site, the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.

Following this dispute with Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled what would have been an historic visit to the United Arab Emirates last week, citing a disagreement with Jordan over crossing its airspace.

As this snippet was being written, a dramatic feud erupted in the Jordanian royal family. The current king’s half-brother (and former crown prince), Prince Hamzah claimed he was put under house arrest. Jordan's military issued a statement saying that Hamzah had been asked to “stop some movements and activities that … target Jordan’s security and stability”. It is pretty evident that the current king is facing great instability due to the impact of the Corona pandemic: the economy is down, the health system is crashing, and growing criticism is threatening the monarchy.

Back to March and the Temple Mount. The prickly question is: What was the purpose of that visit at a time when there was both political unrest in Israel and upcoming elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council? Perhaps Abdullah II planned the recently cancelled visit to the Temple Mount to prepare the ground for his son’s succession?

Whether the answer is clear or not, these latest disputes awaken echoes of an old trauma that the Jordanian royal family still carries – the assassination of Abdullah I of Jordan on the Temple Mount in 1951.

* Abdullah I bin Al-Hussein, founder and first king of Jordan (National Photo Collection of Israel)

Let’s revisit history and go back to World War I. The Hashemite family joined forces with the British to expel the Ottomans from the Middle East. After the Ottomans were defeated, the British and the French proceeded to slice up the Middle East into different territories and to give control over most of the Middle East to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, by installing two of his sons as heads of state in newly created territories: Abdullah was to administer the territory east of the Jordan River, Transjordan; and Faisal was to become king of the new Kingdom of Iraq.

In 1921, Abdullah was recognized by Great Britain as the Emir of Transjordan, a British protectorate. In 1946, as part of the British withdrawal from its colonies, Jordan won independence and Abdullah became the first King of Jordan. Since then, Jordan has always remained dependent on support from western countries.

As the British were withdrawing from the Palestine mandate, Abdullah held secret talks with Golda Meir about keeping his army out of the fight against Israel. However, in early 1948 he concluded that he had to join forces with his Arab neighbors and fought against Israel in the 1948 war. Israel gained independence and control over most of Palestine (previously a British mandate), but Jordan succeeded in capturing the territory west of the Jordan river, which the world then named the West Bank. Abdullah decided to annex the West Bank a year after the war, a move that was condemned by neighboring Arab nations and made the Palestinians very angry.

* King Abdullah I on Temple Mount, May 1948 (photo credit: John Phillips)

After the war, according to Israeli historians, Abdullah was negotiating a peace deal with the head of the Mossad and the foreign ministry of Israel. The Palestinians, devastated by the Nakba, saw Abdulla's friendliness to the newborn Zionist nation together with the annexation of the West Bank as a complete betrayal.

In July 1951, Abdullah visited Temple Mount and participated in the Friday prayers, accompanied by his 15 year old grandson, Hussein. They had a special grandfather-grandson relationship. After Abdullah finished his prayer at the Al Aqsa Mosque, on his way to the Mosque of Omar, three gun shots shocked the crowd. Abdullah fell to the ground. An urban legend tells us that Hussein, the grandson, was also caught in the gunfire. One of the bullets ricocheted off a medal he was wearing on his chest and he miraculously escaped harm. King Abdullah was evacuated to the Austrian Hospice in the Christian Quarter and died there shortly afterwards. (Off topic – I love sitting at the hospice garten - drink Palestinian beer and listen to the Adhan, the Muslim call for prayer.)

The assassin was a 21 year-old Palestinian who worked in the Old City as a tailor. Reportedly he was a nationalist who closely followed the Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al Husseini, who incited violence against Jordanian control of the West Bank.

This assassination shook the young monarchy and created a succession crisis. After King Abdullah’s assassination, King Talal, his eldest son, ruled for a brief period. Due to King Talal’s mental illness, his eldest son Hussein was proclaimed King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1952. He assumed his constitutional powers in 1953, after reaching the age of eighteen. Succession crisis ended, and Hussein successfully steps into his grandfather's big shoes, ruling the kingdom for over 46 years.

Hussein followed his grandfather's approach: please the West, keep the Palestinians residing in Jordan quiet and unarmed, and fortify the position of the royal family. King Hussein had a special relationship with Yizhak Rabin, Israel's only prime minister who was assassinated.

They used to have really good conversations, and laughed and smoked a lot together. In 1994, Jordan and Israel finally sign a peace agreement.

On one hand, it was easier to normalize relations with Israel following the peace signed between Egypt and Israel, but on the other hand, after Saadat’s assassination King Hussein had to consider his steps very carefully. He was ruling a kingdom which hosts millions of Palestinians, many of them still living in refugee camps.

* King Hussein lights Yitzhak Rabin’s cigarette following the signing ceremony, October, 1994 (photo credit: Saar Yaakov)

In the 9th article of the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, it states that Israel commits to "respect the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem," and that "when negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines."

A few weeks before his death in 1999, King Hussein named his eldest son Abdullah his heir. This is Abdullah II, the current King of Jordan. What might be just a coincidence, he married Rania Al-Yassin, the daughter of a Palestinian couple from the West Bank. Abdullah II became king at turbulent times. Israel was facing the second Intifada and tension around the Temple Mount was at a peak. Today, in addition to coping with the tensions with Israel and the Palestinians, Jordan is currently home to millions of Syrian refugees, and has been fighting against ISIS on its north-western borders. If that is not enough, Jordan has a severe shortage of fresh water and relies almost entirely on Israel for water supply.

Israel’s recent signing of economic-peace agreements with other Arab nations is presenting Jordan with a new challenge. While many Arab countries are strengthening their economic-military-diplomatic ties with Israel, including Turkey’s hostile Erdogan, Jordan’s royal family is deeply entangled with the Palestinian cause and cannot afford a Palestinian Spring in their kingdom.

The Temple Mount is an important site to the Islamic world, particularly for the Hashemites who consider themselves descendants of Muhammad. The Hashemites previously controlled the site, which they lost to Israel after the Six Day War. However, Waqf (civil administration for the holy sites) remains in the hands of the Jordanians till today, and the Hashemite Kingdom feel enormous responsibility for the Temple Mount.

Jordan in one of the only countries in the Middle East that hasn’t experienced a large-scale uprising of any sort. It has been relatively steady since Abdullah’s assassination. We Israelis need to understand Jordan’s unique and complex role in the Middle East. Just as the Jewish nation suffers from collective traumas (slavery in Egypt, the destruction of the temple, the Holocaust), the assassination of Jordan’s founder on the Temple Mount is a collective trauma for the Jordanians.

We Israelis must remember this and try to host the Hashemites’ visit to Jerusalem in the spirit of Abraham.

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