AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan’s king and his people are bristling with anger over Israeli actions at a sacred site for Muslims in Jerusalem, threatening to turn a cold peace between Israel and Jordan into a deep freeze.
The rising animosity between Jordan and Israel, whose governments are tethered by a peace treaty, could undermine U.S.-led efforts to fight Islamist extremists. It also threatens a multibillion-dollar natural gas deal that is important to both countries.
Jordan took the extraordinary step this month of recalling its ambassador to Israel to protest police incursions, provocative visits by Israeli politicians and the treatment of Muslim worshipers at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. The ambassador has not returned.
Jordanian officials stressed that anything that undermines the monarch’s ability to protect al-Aqsa undercuts his authority at home and in the eyes of Muslims elsewhere, which could undermine the regime at a time when it is taking risky moves to fight Islamist radicals in Iraq and Syria.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II is on the throne in part because of his claim to being a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad and his custodianship of Islam’s holy places in Jerusalem, granted to him by a special agreement between Israel and Jordan. A king who cannot protect the mosque or that delicate arrangement may lose the support of his people.
“The king has been extremely unhappy,” said Jawad Anani, a member of the energy committee in the Jordanian Senate and former chief of the royal court.
“Jordan could not afford to maintain its relations with Israel if the status quo is upended. It is that serious,” he said. “The Israeli extremists are playing with fire.”
Israeli officials say they were forced to temporarily restrict access to the mosque in response to rioting, after a Palestinian’s recent attempt to assassinate a prominent activist who agitates for Jews to have the right to pray at the site. The first and second Jewish temples once stood at the site, a spot considered the holiest in Judaism.
In response to the mosque closures and what they see as heavy-handed actions by Israeli security forces trying to quell riots, populist members of the Jordanian parliament are calling for the government to close its embassy in Tel Aviv and reconsider the countries’ 1994 peace treaty. That treaty has provided quiet on Israel’s eastern flank for two decades.
Abdul Hadi Majali, a former Jordanian ambassador to the United States and a leader of a prominent tribe that controls a large bloc in parliament, said the Israeli actions at al-Aqsa “embarrass the king in front of his people.”
In the midst of violent clashes and terrorist attacks in Israel, Jordan’s monarch and his government are facing growing opposition to scuttle a 15-year, $15 billion deal announced this year to buy Israeli natural gas via a planned pipeline from the Mediterranean Sea to the Hashemite kingdom.
When the letter of intent was signed between Jordan and American and Israeli energy companies in September, it was hailed as a “gas for peace” deal that would benefit both countries, providing energy-starved Jordan with cheap, relatively clean electricity and giving Israel a diplomatic and economic boost with a peaceful neighbor.
These days, protesters gather in front of Jordan’s National Electric Power Co. shouting, “No Zionist Gas!”
“Our government is selling off al-Aqsa mosque in exchange for Israeli gas,” said Mohammad Hajab 28, who works at a public relations firm and stood on the street waving a sign last week. “Our government is being bought out by the Israelis.”
“We should be isolating Israel, not aiding Israel,” said Mary Nazzal, 35, a prominent hotelier in Amman who was standing at the curb.
She said Jordanians are upset that billions of dollars in gas royalties will go to the Israeli treasury and might ultimately fund the Israeli military and its 47-year occupation of the West Bank and its wars against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians and their descendants make up about half the Jordanian population.
The crumbling relations between Jordan and Israel are an irritant to the White House, according to U.S. and Jordanian officials.
Jordan’s politically moderate king, whose son is an undergraduate at Georgetown University, is a vital U.S. ally who plays a central role in the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Jordan is providing intelligence and flying its own bombing sorties over Islamic State strongholds, and it may soon help train Iraqi forces. Additionally, the king has signaled that Jordanian special forces may play a limited role on the ground.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry rushed to Amman last week to meet with Abdullah and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to cool the rising tempers.
Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, said that Netanyahu and the Israelis appreciate the importance of their relationship with their neighbor and that they are sensitive to the king’s position. But Eran thinks the recent summit with Kerry was only a temporary, tenuous fix.
“I’m a bit doubtful how long measures can keep the tensions under control in Jerusalem,” said Eran, a scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Any little incident can ignite bigger incidents.”
Immediately afterward, Netanyahu emphasized that Israel had no intention of changing a delicate “status quo” agreement that grants Abdullah custodial rights over al-Aqsa and other holy sites in Jerusalem, most prominently the raised esplanade known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The next day, Israeli police lifted age restrictions and allowed all Muslim men to attend Friday prayers at the mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
“We have sent repeated messages to Israel directly and indirectly that Jerusalem is a red line,” Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, said this month.
“His majesty has said we will use everything in our power, because this will not continue,” Mohammad al-Momani, the Jordanian information minister, said in an interview. “We’ve told the world we are not going to take it.”
He said the government is continuing to negotiate the Israeli natural gas deal, but he warned that “if the escalation continues, all sorts of coordination and cooperation regrettably might be affected.”