AMMAN: A Jordan-Palestinian deal entrusting King Abdullah II with the defence of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem appears to be aimed at engaging Amman in future peace talks with Israel, experts say.
The deal signed between the Jordanian monarch and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Sunday confirmed a verbal agreement dating back to 1924 that gave the kingdom custodianship over the city's holy sites.
But its timing, hot on the heels of a March 20-24 regional tour by US President Barack Obama, has intrigued analysts with some linking it to the deadlocked peace process and others seeing it as a possible shield against future action by Israel.
"It might be a sign for the start of efforts led by Obama to resume peace talks as it shows that the Palestinian Authority and Jordan have creative solutions for Jerusalem," said Oraib Rintawi, head of the Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies.
"It boosts Jordan's role in the Jerusalem question, giving legal and political means to tackle the issue internationally with the recognition of the Palestinians and Israel."
On Sunday the king and Abbas stressed their "common goal to defending" Jerusalem and its sacred sites against attempts to Judaise the Holy City, particularly the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
"In this historic agreement, Abbas reiterated that the king is the custodian of holy sites in Jerusalem and that he has the right to exert all legal efforts to preserve them, especially Al-Aqsa mosque," the palace said in a statement.
The status of Jerusalem is one of the most contentious issues in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Al-Aqsa compound is the scene of frequent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis.
Israel, which occupied Arab east Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it, claims both halves of the city to be its "eternal and undivided capital", a move that has not been recognised by the international community.
But the Palestinians want the eastern sector as the capital of their promised state and fiercely oppose any Israeli attempt to extend sovereignty there.
The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is referred to as the Temple Mount by Jews and Al-Haram al-Sharif by Muslims.
It houses both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque -- Islam's third holiest shrines -- and is venerated by Jews as the site where King Herod's temple stood before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
"The agreement indicates that something is cooking and that steps are expected very soon to find a Palestinian-Israeli settlement," said political analyst Labib Kamhawi.
"The deal helps Jordan become publicly more active in Palestinian territories."
But Kamhawi said he was "pessimistic" and the timing was "suspicious".
"I think Israel is planning to do something in Jerusalem and the agreement was necessary to help clear the way. We might see developments that are not in the interest of Jerusalem or the Palestinians."
Rintawi said the deal also backs the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty.
"It completes articles related to the custodianship of holy sites. At the same time it clears any misunderstanding about custodianship matters and competition between Jordan and the Palestinians."
Article 9 of the peace treaty says Israel recognises Jordan's "special role in protecting" Muslim shrines in Jerusalem.
Jordanian and Palestinian officials insist Sunday's agreement has nothing to do with the peace process.
"Although it could be true that the agreement came following increased Israeli Judaisation campaigns, it is not related to peace negotiations," a senior palace officials told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"The main reason is to pave the way for Jordanian legal defence of Muslim holy sites in the region, particularly that Al-Aqsa is under direct danger by Israel."
The Palestinian ambassador to Jordan, Atallah Khairy, agreed.
"The Jordanian custodianship in Jerusalem is very essential because any legal vacuum in the Holy City will be exploited by Israel," he said, adding that "the king had been feeling that Israeli schemes in the city were growing."
Jordan administers the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem through its ministry of Awqaf and religious affairs.
Abbas on Monday told reporters in Ramallah that the deal consolidates past agreements with Jordan, has nothing to do with Obama's visit and is not related "at all with the negotiations".
Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in autumn 2010 in an intractable spat over settlement building.
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