On March 31, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), in his role as leader of the PLO, president of the state of Palestine, and chairman of the Palestinian Authority, signed an agreement on the safeguarding of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) and its holy places with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
The preamble to the agreement,1 in fact an integral part of it, sets forth the historical and legal background that bestows responsibility for the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Jerusalem holy places on King Abdullah II. This is based on the claim that the monarch is a scion of the family of the Prophet Muhammad and descendant of King Al-Hussein bin Ali, who received this responsibility in 1924.
The preamble also underlines the PLO’s status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and sovereignty over the territory that includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
According to the agreement, King Abdullah II will continue to function as “Servant of the Holy Places in Jerusalem,” a title similar to that of the Saudi monarch, who is called the “Servant of the Two Holy Places” in the Arabian Peninsula.
The agreement defines the Jordanian role as: maintaining the honor of the Jerusalem holy places, ensuring freedom of access to the holy places of Islam, administering and safeguarding the holy places of Islam, representing the interests related to the holy places in international forums, and supervising the Wakf (religious trust) and its properties in accordance with Jordanian law.
Abbas explained that the agreement signed with King Abdullah is actually a direct extension of the agreement that was signed with his father, King Hussein, after Jordan’s decision to disengage from the West Bank in 1988.
Abbas stated: “When the late King Hussein bin Talal announced the disengagement in 1988, we talked with him about this issue and how to deal with it, and we arrived at an agreement that the responsibility for the Islamic sacred properties would be in Jordan’s hands, and that is how it was originally, and that Jordan would continue to carry its responsibility, and so it has done until today.” He added: “We and Jordan are coordinating our positions on the holy places, and yesterday’s [March 31] agreement is actually a renewal of what existed in 1987, and according to it the sovereignty over all the Palestinian land belongs to us, and on that matter there is no debate.” 2
In truth, back in 1988 King Hussein only severed the administrative and legal links with the West Bank. He did not renounce the Hashemite claim to the territory. Significantly, the 1950 Act of Union between the two banks was not repealed.3 But these issues did not come up in the statements made by the two parties in 2013.
The need to renew the Jordanian-PA agreement arose in November 2012 when the UN General Assembly recognized Palestine as a nonmember state. The Palestinian Authority believes it has won international recognition of its claim to sovereignty over the entire West Bank within the 1967 borders including East Jerusalem, the Old City, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
The General Assembly resolution therefore made it necessary to reconfirm Jordan’s special role in the territory of the “Palestinian state.” The Jordanian king has a great interest in retaining the title of “Guardian of the Holy Places,” which gives him a status and influence that are also important domestically. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, obtained renewed recognition of the sole right to represent the Palestinian people that is entrusted to the PLO, while making clear that the Jordanian role does not contravene its claim to sovereignty over all of the West Bank without any exceptions.
The agreement in no way changes the status quo in Jerusalem. Jordan will keep paying the salaries of the Wakf employees, and the king will hold the title of “Guardian of the Holy Places.” Control of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, however, is actually in the hands of allies of the Palestinian Authority who are identified with Hamas; Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose activists maintain a regular presence at Al-Aqsa; and the Israeli Islamic Movement.
For now the two sides prefer to keep things as they are and are not interested in opening up fateful issues. Hence the Palestinians are careful to avoid raising the question of the Palestinians residing in Jordan, deferring the issue to the stage after a Palestinian state is established.
Similarly, even after the General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine as a nonmember state, the “state of Palestine” is not demanding that Israel give it control of the border passages to Jordan as part of implementing its sovereignty; instead it is focusing on the issue of its border with Israel and the demand that all settlements be dismantled.
Jordan, for its part, faces no less of a Palestinian problem than Israel. Palestinians form a significant demographic factor in Jordan and in the very heart of the kingdom, in Amman the capital and the city of Zarqa, that majority is overwhelming. The Arab-Islamic Spring that has swept the Middle East set off shock waves in the Hashemite kingdom, and the Jordanian monarch is well aware that the Palestinian leadership holds the key to the stability of his rule, and that the fear of Jordan becoming the “alternative homeland” is all that is deferring the decision to launch a frontal clash with his government.
As far as Israel is concerned, from a political or practical standpoint the Jordanian-Palestinian arrangement neither adds nor detracts. Israel has an interest in preserving the stability of the Hashemite kingdom, which is terrified of what could happen the day after Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank becomes a reality. The uncompromising positions of the Palestinian leadership (Palestinian “justice,” no to a “compromise”) compels both Israel and Jordan to opt for crisis management, aimed at maintaining maximal security under the current circumstances while being prepared for political scenarios that could fundamentally alter the power equation and even the map.
Avi Shlaim, Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace (New York: Knopf, 2008), p. 471.