The crucial security relationship between Jordan and Israel is gaining new meaning after the brutal execution of a Jordanian pilot at the hands of ISIS.
In the aftermath of the killing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved quickly to publicly bolster Israel’s alliance with Jordan. In a phone call on Thursday, just a day after King Abdullah II returned to Jordan following a shortened trip to Washington, Netanyahu extended his condolences to Abdullah and expressed his anger over ISIS’s “barbaric cruelty,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
The Jordanian pilot, Lt. Moath al-Kasasbeh, was burned alive by ISIS militants in a video shared online around the world.
The tragedy is a prime opportunity for Netanyahu to shore up a relationship that has undergone some strain in recent months over restricted Palestinian access to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Jordan recalled its ambassador three months earlier over rising tensions in Jerusalem, but on Monday the ambassador was back in Tel Aviv, a sign that Jordan sees the importance of smoothing over its relationship with Israel.
Jordan has been a crucial partner in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, not only flying missions over Syria and bombing ISIS targets, but also lending its territory to the CIA’s covert program to train moderate Syrian rebels.
And while Israel isn’t a member of the anti-ISIS coalition and isn’t actively combating the group, Israeli officials have said they consider ISIS a regional threat. That threat is only becoming more real as heavy fighting rages along the Israeli-held Golan Heights, where stray artillery fire has hit in recent months. The Israeli military has become increasingly focused on its border with Syria in recent months, concerned that the civil war could spillover as Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Syrian government, is gaining territory in Syria alongside the Israeli border.
As Israel looks to Syria with a more watchful eye, Jordan is becoming even more committed and determined to defeating ISIS. Jordan’s resolve was only strengthened by the brutal murder of one of its pilots and public support for the fight has swelled in the aftermath.
Now, Jordan could be looking to expand its role and it could lean its close intelligence relationship with Israel for support.
Israel has already flown drone sorties over the Jordanian-Syrian border to help Jordan thwart potential attacks from ISIS. But that and other intelligence assistance could be the extent of Israeli support, said Israeli officials who promise to be “as supportive as we can be” of the Jordanians.
And the Washington Institute’s David Schenker, the Pentagon’s former top policy aide on the Levant, said it may be difficult for Israel to provide even more support to bolster an already stalwart relationship. Israel is certainly committed though, viewing the Jordanian monarchy as a bastion of stability, he added.
“The relationship between the Jordanian military establishment and Israel is deep. It is very deep,” Schenker said. “I wonder whether there are any additional areas in which they could strengthen the relationship, keeping in mind that it cannot be overt [support].”
Jordan and the contingent of countries fighting ISIS are also wary of Israel playing an active role in the fight against ISIS. Conspiracy theories and allegations of Israeli support on all sides of the Syrian civil war are already rampant and Israel’s involvement could become a distraction and undermine public support. And Israeli officials are mindful of the double-edged nature of their support.
As Israel and Jordan face “an overlapping threat” from ISIS, Schenker said each side may look to their relationship with the other – with Israel heavy on technical capabilities and Jordan providing the benefit of decades of human intelligence assets in Syria.
“This is a shared threat,” he said. “There’s always areas you can find where you can enhance and massage aspects to improve and make the relationship more close.”
Israel and Jordan are also facing another, more intangible threat posed by ISIS as the militant group spreads its ideology throughout the region. Israel’s security services already claim to have discovered an ISIS cell of Palestinians inside Israel
“Israel, like Jordan, is susceptible to the problem that all the states in the region are,” Schenker said. “Regardless of if you can secure your borders, the ideology can traverse.”
And the highest-ranking public officials were keen this week to pivot off of their support for Jordan to draw comparisons between ISIS and Israel’s chronic enemies.
Netanyahu on Wednesday likened ISIS to Iran, tweeting that “ISIS burn people alive, the Islamic State of Tehran hang them from cranes in the public squares. Both are motivated by Islamic terrorism.”
And he added: “Greatest danger to the future of the world is that this extremism will be backed up by nuclear weapons, something everyone must oppose.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman also issued a statement Wednesday condemning the pilot’s murder, praising Abdullah’s strong-handed response and likening the experience to Israel’s constant struggle with terrorism.
“The citizens of Israel, who have been dealing with cruel terror of every kind for 66 years, identify with [Jordan’s] pain,” Lieberman said. “The world needs a strong leadership, committed to destroying Islamic terrorism, which includes ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaida and their partners.”
It’s a familiar refrain that Netanyahu has employed – or rather, tweeted – in an attempt to shore up support for Israel in its on-again-off-again fight against Hamas and his campaign to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“The difference between ISIS and Hamas and ISIS and Iran and so on is they all agree that the world should be an Islamist hill, but … each of them wants to be the king of the hill,” Netanyhau said on CBS in October.
Netanyahu made a similar point in a speech to the United Nations in September and has also likened ISIS beheadings to Hamas’ execution of alleged collaborators.
Netanyahu’s social media accounts continued to push posts this week about the danger of extremism and nuclear weapons – a not-so-subtle wink at the dangers of Iran.
Netanyahu isn’t just playing for an international audience. He’s up for reelection again in March, propping himself up on a security-focused platform.