OSAMA AL-SHARIF September 21, 2021
The post-Netanyahu era is heralding a state of rapprochement between Israel on the one hand and Jordan and Egypt on the other. It could also bring some badly needed benefits for the ailing Palestinian Authority. Since he managed to form a broad coalition government in June, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been able to mend ties with neighboring Jordan and Egypt while keeping his allies at bay.
Under Benjamin Netanyahu, relations with Jordan declined to an unprecedented level, while ties with Egypt witnessed little improvement. And when Donald Trump took over as US president, Netanyahu saw an opportunity to build an alliance with Gulf countries at the expense of Israel’s strategic ties with its two Arab neighbors.
Relations with Jordan reached a low last year when Netanyahu announced plans to annex the Jordan Valley. King Abdullah warned that the two-decades-old peace treaty could be affected if Israel went ahead with annexation. Peace talks with the Palestinians had been stopped for almost 10 years and Trump’s proposed peace plan was rejected by both Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan.
The Netanyahu era represented a bleak phase for the prospects of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Not that Bennett’s arrival will make much difference. But his allies in the coalition government may change the current trajectory. Defense minister and coalition partner Benny Gantz had a rare meeting with Abbas in Ramallah last month — the first official encounter between a high-ranking Israeli official and Abbas in almost 10 years. The meeting focused on improving the economic status of Palestinians in the West Bank and did not cover political aspects.
On three separate occasions, Israel announced that Bennett, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Gantz had visited Amman and met with King Abdullah between July and August. That indicated a major shift in relations and an Israeli keenness to improve ties with Jordan after years of tension. Talks focused on bilateral relations, especially economic cooperation, and on supporting the PA. An informed source told this writer that Jordan now considered relations with Israel to be in their best ever phase.
Egypt, too, sought to capitalize on its diplomatic success in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in May. Its mediation role has improved its standing with the Biden administration, as well as with Israel. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi last week invited Bennett to Sharm El-Sheikh, a move that was seen as a landmark in bilateral ties. Talks focused on Egypt’s role in reaching a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas that could include a prisoner exchange.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has visited Cairo before and, on Sunday, had a phone call with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry. Egypt said the exchange focused on reviving peace talks, while Lapid’s office pointed to an offer to allow major Gaza reconstruction projects in return for mutual security.
Jordan and Egypt are coordinating their positions with regards to Gaza and the PA. Earlier this month, Egypt hosted both King Abdullah and Abbas in a bid to support the PA and its president. But a source told this writer that both leaders put pressure on Abbas to carry out much-needed reforms and appoint a deputy.
Abbas’ popularity has dipped following May’s showdown between Israel and Hamas and the killing of a Palestinian activist while in PA custody. His indefinite postponement of presidential and legislative elections has polarized Palestinians further. Meanwhile, Egyptian efforts to conclude a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas appear to have reached a dead end.
While Jordan and Egypt call publicly for the resumption of peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, it is clear that Bennett is in no position to launch such a process.
While Jordan and Egypt call publicly for the resumption of peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, it is clear that Bennett is in no position to launch such a process. He is ideologically opposed to a Palestinian state and his coalition will fall apart if he initiates a political process.
On the other hand, he and the US administration are in agreement that the daily livelihood of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories must be improved. Lapid is pushing for a deal to allow major reconstruction projects in Gaza in return for a long-term truce with Hamas. Beyond that, he and his boss hope to shift attention from the West Bank to Gaza as the future Palestinian entity.
For Jordan and Egypt, managing the conflict at this stage is a delicate effort. Egypt hopes to endear itself to the Biden administration by helping Hamas and Israel reach a long-term truce that could include a prisoner swap. Such a deal would embolden Hamas’ position in Gaza and among Palestinians. On the other hand, all parties want the PA to survive while preparing for a post-Abbas era.
Although a political process remains elusive at this point, Palestinians can expect a major improvement in their daily lives. This is the most Israel can offer at this stage, and the least Jordan and Egypt can support as they seek to manage the conflict in the absence of a genuine political process.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view