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Jordan’s king said he was ready for conflict if the status of Jerusalem’s holy sites changed, as Israel prepares to swear in what may be the most right-wing government in its history.
In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson this month, King Abdullah II said his country was “worried” that the Israelis were trying to push for changes in his control of the Israeli-occupied East. Custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, and has warned he has “red lines”.
“If people want to clash with us, we are fully prepared,” he said. “I’ve always believed in that, let’s look at the glass half full, but we have some red lines … if people want to push those red lines then we’ll deal with that.”
The new government of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to be the most right-wing in Israel’s history, including controversial figures once considered at the extreme fringes of Israeli politics. This has raised concerns about the potential for an escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence and Israel’s future relations with its Arab neighbors and Western allies.
This year has already seen the deadliest death toll for both Palestinians and Israelis in nearly two decades, sparking fears of a new Palestinian intifada against Israel.
“We have to worry about the next uprising (uprising),” the king said. “If that happens, it’s a total breakdown of law and order, and neither Israelis nor Palestinians will benefit from it. I think everyone in the region is very concerned, including the Israelis who are on our side on this issue to ensure 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 recognizes Amman’s special role in the city’s holy sites. But relations between the two have been rocky since, with Jordan often accusing Israel of violating agreements that gave it control of the sites and banned non-Muslims from praying there.
Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy has been the custodian of Jerusalem’s holy places since 1924 and sees itself as the guarantor of the religious rights of Muslims and Christians in the city.
Tensions are highest in an area Muslims call Haram Al Sharif, known to Jews as 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 state security minister and take over the police, including law enforcement at Jerusalem’s holy sites. Ben Gvir has long incited violence against Palestinians and Arabs. He was convicted of inciting anti-Arab racism and supporting terrorism and has publicly called for changes in the Holy Land.
“I don’t think these people are just under the Jordanian microscope. They’re under the international microscope,” King said in response to a question about Ben Gvir’s views. “I have to believe that there are many people in Israel who are as worried as we are.”
He declined to say how Jordan would respond to the change in the status of the holy sites. “At the end of the day, the people of Israel have the right to choose whoever they want to lead them … as long as we can bring people together, we will work with anyone and everyone,” he said.
Of Jordan’s approximately 10 million population, more than half are of Palestinian descent, including more than 2 million Palestine refugees.
Jordan is the second Arab country to normalize relations with Israel after Egypt. But after decades of waiting, Israel scored a major diplomatic victory in 2020, gaining recognition from four other Arab states (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan).
The country’s relations with Israel are under intense scrutiny at home, and many oppose further strengthening ties because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Israel’s integration into the region is “extremely important” but “unless there is a future for the Palestinians, this will not happen,” the king said, referring to the overwhelming support for the Palestinians from Arab fans at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
The king has recently doubled down on his efforts to clarify the place of Christians in the Middle East. In September, he declared at the United Nations General Assembly in New York that Christianity in Jerusalem was “under attack,” a message endorsed by Jerusalem’s patriarch and church leaders.
Some churches in the Holy Land have also been sounding the alarm about the situation of local Christians. In this week’s Christmas message, Church leaders in Jerusalem, a group of Palestinian churches, issued a statement condemning “attacks” on their religion and “unwarranted restrictions” on worship. In July, the Palestinian High Presidential Council for Church Affairs issued a statement condemning the attack on the Church of the Holy Spirit and the Greek Garden by “extreme Israeli settlers” and accusing the Israeli government of “inaction” to detain the perpetrators, which is an act of complicity. bookkeeping.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat told CNN that church leaders “have full access to every government agency on their concerns,” adding that “violence against any community is condemned by the government, Israeli police It will be investigated with the utmost seriousness.”
“The State of Israel remains committed to upholding freedom of religion and worship for all, including the Christian community, in Jerusalem and other holy sites,” he said.
King Abdullah told CNN that the church in Jerusalem faced challenges from “policies on the ground,” leading to pressure on the Christian community.
“It’s not a national policy, but some people who have joined the government have very extreme views on Muslims and Christians, obviously on the other side, and we have to stand united against that,” 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.
For much of the past two decades, Jordan has become a safe haven for Christians in the Middle East as neighboring countries have been embroiled in conflict, forcing some of the world’s oldest Christian communities to flee their homes.
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 is to build accommodation, a museum and an amphitheater to accommodate up to 1.5 million visitors a year.
“I think one of the misconceptions people have about this place is that it’s inclusive. Nearly 15 percent of the tourists who come here are Muslim,” he told CNN. “So this is an opportunity to break down those barriers and show that we are proud not only of Jordan’s Christian heritage, but also of the relationship between Christianity and Islam.”
People in the Middle East “just want to get on with their lives,” the monarch said. “So while 2022 is challenging and 2023 is dangerous, we still have a chance to go beyond.”
This can be achieved through regional integration, he said.
“I’ve shaken off the feeling that politics is going to solve our problems. It’s economic dependence,” he said. “When I invest in your success, because your success is my success, it ultimately means we can move forward.”
Additional reporting by CNN’s Mike Schwartz from Jerusalem.