WP: Inside the palace intrigue in Jordan and a thwarted "deal of the century"

12-06-2021 01:17 PM

BY David Ignatius

President Donald Trump had a dizzying dream for a diplomatic “deal of the century” for Arab-Israeli peace that would unite his allies Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It never happened, in large part because Jordan’s King Abdullah II would not bend to pressure and make concessions on the status of Jerusalem and other issues affecting the Palestinians. His resistance came at a price: Abdullah’s kingdom has been shaken by tremors over the past several years, encouraged by the squeeze from top political leaders in the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah’s troubles erupted into public view in early April, when the king’s security forces detained three prominent Jordanians, he suspected of plotting to destabilize his regime: Prince Hamzah, the former crown prince groomed by his American-born mother for the throne; Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a relative of the king and a powerful tribal leader; and Bassem Awadallah, a former Jordanian minister who had become a confidant of the Saudi crown prince, who’s often known by his initials, MBS.

A Jordanian prosecutor referred charges against bin Zaid and Awadallah to the State Security Court on June 2, but the details weren’t disclosed publicly. A Jordanian investigative report on the case, shared with me by a knowledgeable former Western intelligence official, claims that the alleged plotters’ actions “do not amount to a coup in the legal and political sense, but they were an attempt to threaten Jordan’s stability and incite sedition.”

Hamzah wasn’t charged. The investigative report says he and his family “are at their home under His Majesty’s [Abdullah’s] care.” The report argues that Hamzah had “never accepted” his 2004 removal as crown prince and sought to “present himself as an alternative” to his half brother, the king.

The Jordanian report continues: “Awadallah was working to promote the ‘deal of the century’ and weaken Jordan’s position and the King’s position on Palestine and the Hashemite Custodianship of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.”

Hamzah, bin Zaid and Awadallah couldn’t be reached for comment, and efforts to contact attorneys who speak publicly on their behalf weren’t successful.

The Jordanian turmoil surprised observers, some of whom suspected that Abdullah was overreacting to family politics. But a careful reconstruction of the story, gathered from U.S., British, Saudi, Israeli and Jordanian sources, shows that the pressure on the king was real and had been building since Trump began pushing for his mega-peace plan, with Netanyahu and MBS as key allies. In retrospect, this was a plot hiding in plain sight.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and chief adviser on the negotiations, embraced Netanyahu and MBS — but grew increasingly antagonistic toward the Jordanian king. “It became a belief of Trump that the king was a hindrance to the peace process,” says one former senior CIA official. While Trump, Netanyahu and MBS don’t appear to have been working to overthrow the king, their actions clearly weakened him and encouraged his enemies.

Trump’s campaign for normalization of Arab relations with Israel was laudable. It yielded the so-called Abraham Accords that forged new links between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. But the prize Trump and Kushner wanted most was Saudi Arabia — and to clear the way, they tried to muscle Jordan, for decades one of the United States’ closest Arab allies.

Now the winds have shifted: Trump has left office, and Netanyahu appears to be on his way out. Jordan is back in favor, and Abdullah’s advisers say he will visit the White House this summer, the first Arab leader to meet personally with President Biden. MBS is in limbo with the Biden administration and still awaiting a presidential phone call or invitation.

This account of the palace intrigue is drawn from discussions with 10 current or former officials with detailed knowledge of events there. They requested anonymity to describe sensitive intelligence information about one of the least visible but potentially most destabilizing power plays in the Middle East in recent years.

At the center of this story is Jerusalem, Israel’s political capital and a religious treasure for Christians and Muslims, as well as Jews. The Hashemite monarchy in Jordan owes much of its legitimacy to its role as custodian of the al-Aqsa Mosque there. Abdullah has described protection of the Muslim holy shrine as a “red line” for Jordan. Over the past three years, Abdullah felt that Trump, Netanyahu and MBS were all trying to displace him from that role, according to an American who knows the king well.

Until Trump’s last day in the White House in January, Kushner kept pushing for a breakthrough that would allow a hesitant MBS and Saudi Arabia to embrace normalization, according to several knowledgeable officials. By that time, the Jordanians had gathered a dossier of intercepted messages from the alleged plotters that, the Jordanian document contends, showed “incitement against the political regime” and “actions that would … create sedition.” The deal of the century was a distant memory.

The pressure on Abdullah began with his coronation in 1999, following the death of his father, the charismatic and cunning King Hussein. For all Hussein’s courtly charm, he had reigned on a perpetual hot seat, surviving multiple coup plots, assassination attempts and power plays from his neighbors. A 1994 peace treaty with Israel gave the kingdom Israeli in addition to U.S. protection. But Abdullah inherited the same delicate balancing act that had led Hussein to title his memoirs “Uneasy Lies the Head” [that wears the crown].

Abdullah soon became a darling of the West. With his stylish and freethinking wife, Queen Rania, he was a symbol of young, modernizing, pro-Western leadership in the Arab world. He met each summer with the United States’ business and political elite at a gathering sponsored by Allen & Co. in Sun Valley, Idaho. He embodied U.S. and Israeli hopes for peace and moderate Islam in the Middle East.

Abdullah’s relations with Saudi Arabia were more complicated. The Hashemite dynasty had once ruled Mecca and Medina, but now, transplanted to resource-poor Jordan, it needed regular cash infusions from the House of Saud and other Persian Gulf monarchies to survive. Saudi King Abdullah, who reigned from 2005 to 2015, was generous. Riyadh’s interest in Amman was “stability, stability, stability,” recalls a Saudi intelligence source.

The Jordanian monarch’s status as the United States’ best friend in the Arab world began to change with the rise of MBS, after his father, King Salman, took the Saudi throne in 2015. MBS was an instant celebrity in the United States, with his Vision 2030 plan for modernizing his kingdom, his moves to curtail the Saudi religious establishment, and his brash charm.

The MBS bandwagon accelerated when Trump became president in 2017 and made Riyadh his first stop overseas. MBS was touted as a reformer, even as he was suppressing the rights of dissidents and female activists. His power grab became more ruthless in 2017, when he purged a rival as crown prince and jailed more than a hundred prominent Saudis at the Ritz-Carlton hotel until they swore allegiance and turned over some of their cash. Then came the gruesome murder of a dissident journalist, Post Global Opinions contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, in October 2018, a mission the CIA says was approved by MBS.

Joining the MBS entourage was Awadallah, a Jordanian who had served as minister of planning and chief of the royal court. He had become a controversial figure in Jordan, as critics argued that he had benefited financially from his closeness to the king. King Abdullah encouraged him to move to Riyadh, where he made a new start advising MBS on privatization and modernization plans. Awadallah helped preside at Davos-like gatherings, such as the 2018 Future Investment Initiative forum, held just three weeks after Khashoggi’s murder.

According to a Saudi source who spoke with a friend of Awadallah, the Jordanian told the Saudi friend that MBS exclaimed after their first meeting: “Why haven’t I met you before?” The implicit message, argues the Saudi source, was: Now, you’re mine.

By 2018, the Jordanian monarch had become concerned that MBS’s new prominence was coming at Jordan’s expense. During a February 2018 visit to Amman, I heard that worry from senior Jordanian officials. They feared that Jordan, after so many years as a loyal partner, was being displaced because of Trump’s infatuation with MBS and the Saudis — and his eagerness for the “ultimate deal” on the Israeli-Palestinian problem, despite Jordanian misgivings.

Trump in May 2018 officially moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, over King Abdullah’s strong objections. That move, coupled with Jordan’s perennial economic woes, led to street protests in June 2018. A worried Saudi King Salman joined other Gulf leaders in pledging up to $2.5 billion in emergency aid. But the Jordanians say most of that money was never delivered.

Kushner, a real estate tycoon, hoped that economic incentives could persuade the Palestinians (and Jordanians) to support Trump’s peace bid. Kushner unveiled his economic proposals at a conference dubbed “Peace to Prosperity” in Bahrain on June 25 and 26, 2019. His hope was that the Palestinians would eventually accept a limited form of sovereignty, and a different formula for control of Jerusalem, in return for financial largesse.

King Abdullah traveled to Washington in March 2019 for a briefing on the plan. That same month, he made sharp public statements in opposition. In remarks captured in a March 21, 2019, YouTube video, translated by The Post from Arabic, Abdullah said: “I will never change my position on Jerusalem … regardless of what other people say. We have a historical duty toward Jerusalem and the holy sites. … Is there pressure on me from abroad? There is pressure on me from abroad. But, to me, this is a red line.”

Abdullah was even more emphatic in an interview captured in a YouTube video dated March 26, 2019, and translated by The Post. “I, as a Hashemite, how could I backtrack or let go of Jerusalem? Impossible. ... People talk about the ‘deal of the century,’ or an alternative homeland. How? Do we not get a voice?”

Kushner’s dream was that Saudi and other Arab support for his plan would overwhelm Jordanian and Palestinian opposition. That hope might have been bolstered by an op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on July 3, 2019, soon after the Bahrain conference, by Malik Dahlan, a Saudi lawyer in London who is a close confidant of Prince Hamzah.

Dahlan argued that “the costs may be severe” if the Kushner plan collapsed. “If it does fail, it is likely to bring down the [Saudi-sponsored] Arab Peace Initiative with it and end all newfound regional momentum towards peace. That would be a catastrophe.”

The Saudi lawyer then outlined a compromise formula that would begin “with an agreement on the governance of Jerusalem. ... This Jerusalem-first approach would involve the idea of ‘integrative internationalization,’ which, incidentally, I also prescribe for [Mecca] and Medina.” Dahlan said in a telephone interview Thursday that the “integrative internationalization” approach was meant to draw in other Islamic and Western countries but wasn’t intended to displace Jordanian or Hashemite custodianship of al-Aqsa.

As pressure increased on the Jordanian monarch at home and abroad, his security services began investigating possible threats to his regime. The evidence they gathered hasn’t yet been tested in Jordanian courts or international forums, so it’s hard to make final judgments. But the quick moves by the United States and other Western nations to embrace Abdullah after reports of the alleged plot surfaced in April suggest they took the king’s worries seriously.

The investigation began two years ago, according to the Jordanian investigative report I reviewed, which states: “In mid-2019, intel indicated Sharif Hassan bin Zaid … met with two officials from a foreign embassy to inquire about their country’s position on supporting Prince Hamzah as an alternative to the King, and Sharif Hassan continued to communicate with the embassy afterwards.” The former Western intelligence official who provided the report says he believes the embassy in question was probably that of the United States.

The Jordanian report continues: “During 2020, a number of tribal figures reached out to security agencies and brought their attention to attempts by Prince Hamzah’s aides to solicit support from them and members of their families.” By later 2020, the report notes, “intel obtained by security agencies indicated intensified communication between Prince Hamzah, Sharif Hassan and Bassem Awadallah.”

Kushner accelerated his push for Trump’s peace deal in 2020. He released the political details for a Palestinian settlement in January, but because of Palestinian resistance it was dead on arrival. More hopeful developments came in August, with the announcement of a normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE, and in September, with a similar agreement between Israel and Bahrain.

But the Jordanian monarch remained a problem. Awadallah complained to an American former intelligence officer about MBS’s frustration. “A sticking point for us is al-Aqsa. The king [Abdullah] uses that to browbeat us and keep his role in the Middle East,” Awadallah said, according to the American former official. At another point, the former official says, Awadallah had stated: “MBS is upset because he can’t get a deal because he can’t handle the reactions of Palestinians if the king holds his position on Jerusalem."

Benny Gantz, a retired chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces who was serving as Netanyahu’s defense minister, became so concerned about the deterioration in Netanyahu’s relationship with King Abdullah that he made a secret visit to Amman to reassure the king in early 2021, according to an article in All Israel News.

Gantz said later in a Zoom call with supporters: “I think Jordan is a great asset to Israel. ... Unfortunately, Netanyahu is an unwanted figure in Jordan and his presence harms the advancement of relations.” That was a sign of the Israeli security establishment’s worry about possible destabilization in Jordan.

The pace of the alleged plot accelerated in 2021, the Jordanian investigative report claims. It says that security agencies intercepted WhatsApp messages between the three alleged plotters “encouraging Prince Hamzah to ‘make a move’ and also indicated — via coded references — the involvement of other individuals and parties.”

Awadallah was said to be referred to in the intercepted WhatsApp messages as “No Lube” because he doesn’t drink, according to the former Western intelligence official. In one intercepted message, the report asserts, Awadallah said the contacts with Hamzah and the tribal leaders have support from “my boss,” presumably meaning MBS, the former official says. The report accuses Awadallah of “conspiring with foreign agendas” and seeking to “weaken” Jordan’s role as custodian of the Muslim religious sites in Jerusalem.

As Jordan struggled with the covid-19 pandemic, Hamzah increased his outreach to tribal elders and other Jordanian groups, holding more than 30 such meetings in early 2021, according to the investigative report. When Awadallah suddenly moved up a planned departure to Saudi Arabia by a week, to April 4, the authorities decided it was time to move.

Awadallah and bin Zaid were arrested April 3, along with at least a dozen others, and Hamzah was placed under what amounted to house arrest.

Prince Hassan, brother of the late King Hussein and once in line for the throne himself, brokered a family peace deal. Dahlan sent the Associated Press a statement saying that Hamzah had accepted the mediation and “I expect a resolution shortly.” He added: “Prince Hamzah has a lot to offer the Kingdom and the Arab World.”

Representatives of Israel’s intelligence and security services, Mossad and Shin Bet, sent private messages to the Jordanian monarch, disavowing any role in the alleged plot. The theme, according to a former U.S. intelligence official who has read the messages, was: “This is not us. It’s coming from in front of us” — presumably meaning Netanyahu.

King Abdullah’s advisers expect him to arrive in the United States in late June. His visit to the White House will illustrate once again a truth about members of the Hashemite dynasty: Amid the endless turmoil of Middle East politics, they are survivors.

*Washington Post

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