As of November 29, 2011, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal will visit Jordan officially for the first time since he was expelled in 1999. The meeting showcases Amman’s warming relations with the terrorist group that now governs Gaza, as well as its cooling relations with Israel.
According to a statement made by Minister for Information Affairs Rakan Al-Majali, this significant visit will open with a meeting with King Abdullah II himself.
Given Jordan’s substantial Palestinian population, the Palestinian question remains integral to the country’s public discourse. In the past, the monarchy sought to quell the Muslim Brotherhood and deny power to its Palestinian sympathizers in Jordan. But the uprisings of the Arab spring have put unelected leaders on the ropes—so much so that the king now seems willing to meet Meshal face to face.
On October 17, Abdullah appointed the prominent jurist Awn Khasawneh as Jordan’s new prime minister. Khasawneh enjoys longstanding close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and its many branches abroad, in particular Hamas. Before returning to Jordanian politics, he had served as a judge in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, where he spearheaded international criticism of Israel’s security fence. He has intimate knowledge of Jordan’s Royal Court, where he served in the mid-1990s during the negotiations leading to the 1994 peace agreement with Israel.
Meshal’s relationship with Jordan began in the 1990s when he headed the Hamas office in Amman and raised money for his causes, including suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel. In 1997, Mossad agents posing as Canadian tourists attacked Meshal by smearing his neck with a lethal poison. Some accounts suggest the poison was injected into his ear. But the operation failed when six members of the Mossad team were stranded in Jordan, and two were captured by Jordanian authorities. The sovereign at that time, King Hussein, felt betrayed by Israel, with whom he had signed a peace agreement just three years earlier over the bitter opposition of his citizens and large Palestinian refugee population. Ultimately, Hussein brokered a deal in which he released the Israeli agents in exchange for the poison’s antidote, which an Israeli doctor administered, saving Meshal’s life.
The incident almost completely derailed the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. Much of that reconciliation had resulted from the relationship between King Hussein and former Mossad head Efraim Halevy, whom Benjamin Netanyahu—then serving in his first term as Israel’s prime minister—urgently called upon to prevent an even greater diplomatic disaster. In his biography, Man in the Shadows, Halevy writes, “The Mashal affair was a unique experience in dealing with matters of state. I came to learn how brittle the fortunes of political masters and historic figures could become. One moment they were up on high, a minute later their careers hung in the balance.”
On the Jordanian side, Khasawneh served as one of King Hussein’s point men on the Meshal affair. The botched assassination attempt solidified Meshal’s role within Hamas, and in the years since he became one of the organization’s top leaders. Today, he is Hamas’s head, so it comes as no surprise that he remained close to Khasawneh, who was one of the first to congratulate him on his new role.
In conjunction with the deal to free the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Meshal’s visit boosts Hamas’s street credibility and elevates his own status in relation to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. These events put Israel in a bind. Islamism and Islamist leaders such as Meshal are on the rise in Jordan and Egypt, the Arab countries that made peace with Israel.
In Netanyahu’s eyes, Israel offers Jordan a more secure future than Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. But will King Abdullah reach the same conclusion?
Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former IDF liaison officer to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.