Editor’s note: A version of this story appears in today’s edition of Meanwhile in the Middle East, CNN’s thrice-weekly look at the region’s biggest stories. Register here.
Jordan’s king says he is prepared for conflict if the status of Jerusalem’s holy sites changes as Israel prepares to swear in what is likely to 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 that the Israelis are trying to push for changes in their custody of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem , warning that it has “red lines”.
“If people want to get into a conflict with us, we’re quite ready,” he said. “I always like to believe that, we look at the glass as half full, but we have certain red lines … And if people want to push those red lines, we’ll deal with that.”
Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s incoming government is expected to be the most right-wing in Israel’s history and includes controversial figures previously considered on the fringes of Israeli politics. This has raised concerns about the potential for an escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence and for the future of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors and Western allies.
This year was already 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 an upcoming intifada (uprising),” the king said. “And if that happens, that’s a total breakdown of law and order and neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will benefit. I think there’s a lot of concern from all of us in the region, including those in Israel who they are with us on this issue, to make sure that this does not 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 had an uneasy relationship since then, with Jordan regularly accusing Israel of violating the agreement that gave it control of the sites and barred non-Muslims from praying there.
Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy has been the custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites since 1924 and sees itself as the guarantor of the religious rights of Muslims and Christians in the city.
Tensions are highest over the compound known to Muslims as Haram Al Sharif, which is called by Jews the Temple Mount. The site includes the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The area is also the holiest place in Judaism. Right-wing Israeli politicians often argue that Jews should also have the right to pray there.
One of the most controversial figures in Israel’s incoming government is Itamar Ben Gvir, who will become national security minister and take control of the police, including law enforcement at Jerusalem’s holy sites. Ben Gvir has a long history of inciting violence against Palestinians and Arabs. He has been convicted of inciting anti-Arab racism and supporting terrorism and has openly called for changing the status quo at the holy sites.
“I don’t think these individuals are only under a 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 many people in Israel who are as worried as we are.”
He declined to say how Jordan would respond to changes in the status of the holy sites. “At the end of the day, the Israeli people have the right to choose whoever they want to lead them… We will work with anyone and everyone as long as we can bring the people together,” he said.
Of Jordan’s population of about 10 million, more than half are of Palestinian descent, including more than two million Palestinian refugees.
Jordan was the second Arab nation to normalize relations with Israel, after Egypt. But after a decades-long wait, Israel scored a major diplomatic victory in 2020 by gaining recognition from four more Arab states, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
The nation’s relationship with Israel is scrutinized at home, with many opposed to strengthening ties because of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Israel’s integration into the region is “extremely important” but “will not happen unless there is a future for the Palestinians,” the king said, noting the overwhelming support Arab soccer fans are showing the Palestinians at the Cup of the World of Qatar.
The king has redoubled efforts to shed light on the status of Christians in the Middle East of late. In September, he proclaimed to the United Nations General Assembly in New York that Christianity in Jerusalem was “under fire,” a message endorsed by Jerusalem’s patriarchs and church leaders.
Some churches in the Holy Land have also sounded the alarm about the status of Christians there. In a Christmas message this week, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, a group of Palestinian churches, issued a statement denouncing the “assault” on their exercise of religion and “unjustified restrictions” on worship. In July, the Presidential High Committee for Church 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 by “inaction” to restrain the perpetrators. to account.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat told CNN that church leaders “have full access to all government authorities for any concerns they have,” adding that acts of violence ” in any community are condemned by the government and 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 challenges from “politics on the ground,” putting the Christian community under pressure.
“This is not a national policy, but there are those who join governments that have very extremist views towards Muslims and Christians, as there are obviously on the other side, and we have to unite against that,” he said. to say.
Middle Eastern Christians 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 safe haven for Christians in the Middle East for most of the past two decades as neighboring countries have been embroiled in conflicts that have pushed some of the oldest Christian communities in the world to flee their lands.
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 aim of the plan is to build accommodation, museums and amphitheatres, which will serve up to 1.5 million tourists a year.
“I think one of the things people don’t understand about this place is how inclusive it is. Almost 15 percent of the 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 Christian historical heritage here in Jordan, but of the relationship between Christianity and Islam.”
People in the Middle East “just want to get on with their lives,” the monarch said. “So, as difficult as 2022 was and as difficult as the dangers of 2023, we have the opportunity to go further.”
This can be done through regional integration, he said.
“I have moved away from the feeling that politics will solve our problems. It is economic dependence,” he said. “When I’m invested in your success because your success is mine, at the end of the day it means we can move forward.”
With additional reporting by CNN’s Mike Schwartz in Jerusalem.