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Amid brewing regional tensions, Israel begins vaccinating 700 Jordanian workers

Worshipers pray next to al-Aqsa Mosque in the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sept. 18. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

TEL AVIV — Israel began a targeted vaccination drive Monday for 700 Jordanian workers employed in hotels in the coastal resort city of Eilat, in an apparent goodwill gesture meant to ease a slow-burning diplomatic feud between the neighboring countries.

The workers, who had for most of the past year been banned from crossing into Israel because of coronavirus restrictions, were permitted entry after a decision Friday, at the urging of Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli Embassy in Amman and Jordanian authorities.

“The return of the workers to Israel is another step in strengthening the civil relations between Israel and Jordan,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that the Jordanian workers would need to test negative for the virus and quarantine according to Israeli Health Ministry regulations before working in Israel.

After 25 years, Jordan declines to renew Israel’s access to the ‘Island of Peace’

The apparent vaccine diplomacy move comes as Israel — the world’s fastest-vaccinated country, with more than half of its population having received at least a first dose — is opening hotels, restaurants and land border crossings. It also coincides with an escalating row between Israel and Jordan that has been exacerbated in recent months by Israel’s outreach to its new strategic allies in the Persian Gulf region.

Last week, Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah canceled a visit to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque compound after his security detail was denied entry by Israeli border officials.

The next day, Jordan refused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu access to Jordanian airspace needed for a widely publicized trip to the United Arab Emirates, the first official visit by an Israeli leader to the UAE since normalization of relations was established officially six months ago. Although permission was ultimately granted, Netanyahu’s office said it came too late.

“The visit to the Emirates was not possible due to a misunderstanding, because of the coordination of the visit to the Temple Mount,” Netanyahu said.

Jordanian Foreign Minister ­Ayman al-Safadi said in an interview on CNN that Jordan was “angry” with Israel.

“You renege on an agreement with Jordan, you disrupt a religious visit, you create conditions that made this religious visit on a holy occasion impossible, and then you expect to come to Jordan and fly out of Jordan? Let’s be serious here,” he said.

As retaliation, Netanyahu unilaterally decided to close Israeli airspace to flights originating in Jordan. The order was communicated via email to the Transportation Ministry and the Civil Aviation Authority, just 45 minutes before it would be implemented. ­Netanyahu rescinded the order minutes later, after officials retorted that the closing would amount to a violation of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace agreement, according to Israeli media.

“The relationship between [Jordan’s King] Abdullah and Netanyahu was never a good one, but Netanyahu is managing to alienate the Jordanians even further,” said Arie Kacowicz, a professor of international relations at Hebrew University.

The strained relations have been put under additional pressure in recent months, following the signing of the Abraham Accords — Israeli normalization agreements with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the UAE.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu said he told the Israeli online news site Ynet that “four other peace deals are on the way.”

The Abraham Accords have sidelined the Palestinian issue, which had for decades been considered a precondition for Israeli access to economic and diplomatic ties with the greater Arab world. When an Emirati delegation ­arrived at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque in October, Palestinians removed them.

Netanyahu, who has frequently showcased the landmark deal as part of his political campaign ahead of March 23 elections, announced last week that he had clinched more than $10 billion in investments in Israeli infrastructure projects, including in new trade routes between the Persian Gulf and Europe via Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

“For Netanyahu, developing new diplomatic relations with faraway countries involves disregard for old relations with neighboring countries,” read an editorial by the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Tensions have returned the Temple Mount, an elevated esplanade in East Jerusalem’s Old City that has for decades served as a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, to the fore. The site — which houses the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most-sacred site in Islam, and the Temple Mount, the most sacred site in Judaism — has frequently been called a “tinderbox” by Jordan’s king.

Jordan has long expressed concern that an uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence at the holy site could spill over into the entire region, and result in a “massive wave of Palestinian refugees — a nightmare for Jordan,” said Asher Susser, a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

Under the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace deal, Jordan ­retains official guardianship of ­Islamic and Christian sacred sites in East Jerusalem. But with what many activists say is the tacit agreement of the Israeli government, far-right Israelis have increasingly declared Israeli “sovereignty” over the holy site in a development that observers say caused the conflict to spill into the region.

“The Jerusalem issue is not only about Hashemite prestige, it is also about Jordanians being desperately interested in managing the Jerusalem issue to secure peace in Jerusalem, for the sake of their own national security,” Susser said. “What we’re seeing now, small insults exchanged between Israel and Jordan, is about the lack of progress on the Palestinian issue; something much more profound.”

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