February 28, 2023
Sunday’s Aqaba security meeting, which brought together Palestinian and Israeli officials in a rare publicized event, attracted much media attention — but not all of it positive. The one-day event, hosted by Jordan with the participation of senior US and Egyptian officials, was aimed at de-escalating tensions in the occupied West Bank. A number of confidence-building steps were agreed to contain the cycle of violence that has been swelling since the beginning of the year.
At the end of the meeting, a joint communique was issued citing agreement on a number of issues, including ending “unilateral measures for a period of three to six months. This includes an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorization of any outposts for six months.”
Furthermore, the two sides (Palestinian and Israeli) affirmed their commitment to all previous agreements between them and to work toward a just and lasting peace. They reaffirmed the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground and to preventing further violence, the joint communique added. According to inside sources, two committees, one civilian and one security-related, are to be formed, meaning that the much-criticized security coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel is ongoing.
For the host country, which invested huge political capital to bring the two sides together with the backing of the US and Egypt, the five parties recognized “the importance of upholding unchanged the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem in word and practice,” and emphasized in this regard “the Hashemite custodianship/special role of Jordan.”
All parties agreed to convene again in Sharm El-Sheikh in March to achieve the goals listed above, apparently ahead of the onset of the holy month of Ramadan.
The outcome has been described as a diplomatic triumph and as a breakthrough. But no sooner than the communique was released, the hawkish partners of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including the head of the Israeli delegation to the meeting, began to disavow it.
According to Israeli media, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich claimed he had no knowledge of the context of the Aqaba discussions. He asserted: “There will not be a freeze on construction and development in the settlement, not even for one day.” Joining him was National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who tweeted that “what was in Jordan (if it was), will stay in Jordan.” Shortly after, Netanyahu himself joined the chorus, declaring that there would not be a construction freeze over the Green Line. He said: “The building and authorization in (the West Bank) will continue according to the original planning and building schedule, with no change. There is not and will not be any freeze.”
Netanyahu’s coalition will not allow its leader to do any of the things that the parties agreed to in Aqaba.
The far-right government had earlier in February approved the building of 9,000 new units in illegal settlements in the West Bank, while “authorizing” nine new settlements. This Israeli decision had triggered a diplomatic crisis, forcing a number of Arab countries to push for a UN Security Council resolution condemning the move. But under US pressure, President Mahmoud Abbas caved and the council ultimately adopted a coy, nonbinding presidential statement.
The Aqaba agreement did not address the recently approved new permits and Israeli officials stated that the committee responsible for authorizing new settlement expansion would not meet for at least three months.
While Jordan, Egypt and the US were busy congratulating themselves on the Aqaba feat, violence broke out in the West Bank. Jewish settlers went on the rampage in the Palestinian village of Huwara, torching houses, shops, cars, trees and everything they could get their hands on. They were avenging the nearby killing of two settlers hours earlier by a Palestinian gunman. For hours, Palestinian medics and civil defense teams were prevented from entering the town by Israeli soldiers. The Jewish mob killed one Palestinian and injured more than 100. This was the reality on the ground that the Aqaba meeting was hoping to prevent. The bloody events of that day certainly sealed the fate of the agreement.
Netanyahu’s coalition — the most extreme, both ideologically and religiously, in Israel’s history — will not allow its leader to do any of the things that the parties agreed to in Aqaba. This is something that the Biden administration, as well as Jordan and Egypt, must understand by now. In just two months, Israel has killed more than 60 Palestinians, demolished tens of homes and buildings, and looked the other way as Jewish settlers attacked Palestinians and confiscated more land.
The real objective of the Aqaba meeting, at least the primary one, was to save the now-shaky PA and its aging leader Abbas. Increasing militancy among West Bank Palestinians plays into the hands of Hamas, which is preparing to fill the vacuum created by an inept PA that is unpopular and on the verge of bankruptcy. Netanyahu’s far-right partners do not see a difference between the two. There is no binary choice here. Palestinians are the enemy and Smotrich and others have threatened to dispatch tanks and helicopters to Palestinian towns. Others openly called for the burning of Huwara to the ground.
The Aqaba agreement was stillborn and the events preceding Ramadan are a harbinger of how bad things will get during the holy month. The settlers, led by Ben-Gvir and others, have declared war on the Palestinians and Netanyahu, who is only looking out for himself, can do nothing to stop it.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view
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