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Jordan walks a tightrope after downing Iranian drones and missiles

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As the skies over Amman and other Jordanian cities lit up with Jordan’s interception of Iranian drones and missiles headed for Israel last weekend, officials in the country were notably silent for hours.

Tehran’s unprecedented attack on Israel in retaliation for a suspected April 1 Israeli assault on its diplomatic building in Damascus has put the kingdom in an uneasy and dangerous position.

Jordan’s geography demonstrates its quandary. The small kingdom sits between Israel and the West Bank on one side, and Iran’s neighbor Iraq on the other, where pro-Iran militias reign supreme. To its north lies Syria, a failing state that is also in Iran’s orbit.

Last week’s attack was the first time in more than three decades that missiles directed at Israel entered Jordanian airspace, when Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at the Jewish state in 1991 during the Gulf War.

But much has changed since then. Jordan became the second Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel in 1994. In the eyes of Israel’s Western allies, it has been vital to regional security. It has close intelligence and security cooperation with Israel, hosts American troops and is reliant on United States military aid.

The Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty had always been unpopular at home, but it has come under increased stress of late. Emotions have been running high in Jordan over the war in Gaza, where more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed as Israel pummels the territory. More than half of Jordan’s population is either Palestinian or of Palestinian descent, and for months its leadership has been walking a tightrope trying to balance mounting public anger with its close alliance with the United States and relationship with Israel.

The only official announcement related to the events that night came hours before the attack from the country’s civil aviation agency, announcing the closure of the kingdom’s airspace for traffic.

The optics weren’t good.

It didn’t take long that night for social media to get flooded with posts criticizing Jordan and its leadership for the interceptions. The kingdom was portrayed as shielding Israel at a time when Palestinians were being bombed by Israel in Gaza. One meme shared by users apparently outside Jordan showed a manipulated image of Jordan’s King Abdullah in an Israeli military uniform.

Officials were likely scrambling behind the scenes to explain the events to their people.

On Sunday the government confirmed the interceptions “to protect citizens and residential areas.” Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh, speaking during a cabinet meeting, warned against the “spread of rumors or misleading news that could fuel anxiety and fear.”

But it did little to ease concerns among many in the kingdom that trouble may still be ahead.  After Tehran completed its attack against Israel, it turned its focus on Jordan.

“The military forces of our country are carefully monitoring the movements of Jordan during the punitive attack of the Zionist regime (Israel), and if they participate in a possible action, they will be the next target,” an unidentified source in the Islamic Republic’s armed forces told the semi-official Fars news agency.

Tough balancing act

US and Israeli officials sought to play up the role of Arab states in thwarting Iran’s attack. But Jordan pushed a different narrative.

“What we did was consistent with our long-standing policy and any projectiles, drones, whatever that enters our space” Safadi said. “We are in the range of fire and any missiles or projectile that could fall in Jordan would cause harm to Jordan. So, we did what we have to do. And let me be very clear: We will do the same regardless of where those drones are from. From Israel, from Iran, from anybody else. Our priority is to protect Jordan and to protect Jordanian citizens.”

And Jordan’s leadership seems intent on sending that message to its people. Fighter jets have been patroling its skies since Monday. The military says it has increased air sorties to prevent any violations of its airspace and to protect the country.

“Jordan will not be a battlefield for any party, and the protection of Jordanians comes above all else” King Abdullah told local leaders in a visit to the northern governorate of Mafraq on Tuesday.

The country’s message to the international community and its allies this week has been that the focus should return to Gaza and the suffering of Palestinians there. Ending the war in Gaza is the only way to deescalate regional tensions, is the message that King Abdullah gave to US President Joe Biden in a call on Sunday, according to the Jordanian Royal Court.

The Jordanian monarch has faced a tough balancing act since October as anger over the mounting death toll in Gaza has driven thousands to the streets.

Abdullah and his wife Queen Rania, who is of Palestinian descent, have been among the loudest and most critical voices of Israel and its devastating war in Gaza. The kingdom has also been at the forefront of the effort to deliver humanitarian aid into the enclave, turning its military airport into a hub for international airdrops and carrying out dozens of such missions.

But for many in Jordan that has not been enough. Protesters since October have urged the kingdom to do more, with pressure growing on it to cut ties with Israel and shut its embassy in Amman, the scene of many protests over the past six months.

It is no secret that Jordan’s relationship with Israel under Netanyahu’s leadership has been strained for years, but is now perhaps at its lowest in decades. Those frustrations were laid bare by Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, who ruled out breaking relations, but said the Jordan-Israel peace treaty is now “a document collecting dust.”

As Israel weighs how to respond to Iran’s attack, the region sits on a knife’s edge with the very real threat of an all-out war in the Middle East. And the stakes could not be higher for Jordan, a key Western ally that has prided itself as a bedrock of stability in a turbulent region.

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