As tensions escalate, Israel is right to insist on reviving the regional framework

T. Belman.  I disagree. My response to his argument is “yes” and “no”. The issue at hand is should the PA be destroyed or supported? Neither the Hashemites nor Egypt should have any say in the matter. Allowing the PA to disintegrate is not the end of the world. It can obviously be replaced by something better. The Regional Approach only works if Mudar Zahran is the President of Jordan.

By Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, JSS

Under the impact of terrorist attacks on Israelis and lawless vigilante raids on Arab villages, it is difficult to envision a return to conflict management of the Palestinian issue. Moreover, reactions in the West seem to feed Palestinian expectations of a backlash against Israel hence a reluctance to return to the Aqaba process. However, as the Palestinian security forces know all too well, there are no good alternatives to resuming dialogue within the regional framework.

Israel is right to insist on a rapid return to the table with US, Jordanian and Egyptian involvement. The meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh should focus on common security challenges while setting aside the broader issues of the future. It can also allay growing concerns in Washington about Israel’s direction. At the right time, Israel can and should use the process to air lingering concerns about the virulent public domain in Jordan (and Egypt) and the need for the PA to act more resolutely against terrorist groups.
Rising Israeli-Palestinian tensions – and the options for action
In May and June, the so-called cycle of violence escalated in a manner dangerous to the interests of Israel and the Palestinians alike. The violent images it produced still dominate the regional agenda and have generated growing international attention. The trigger, pulled to some extent by Iran and its proxies, has been a series of terrorist attacks, mainly on the roads or in vulnerable locations in northern Samaria. In response, lawless vigilante raids on Arab villages – by elements within the settler community – involved setting houses, businesses, and cars on fire. Meanwhile, Israeli policy on construction in the settlements earned regional and international rebukes (including the cancellation of the Negev Forum meeting planned in Morocco).
Thus, the Palestinian Authority is inclined to concentrate on reviling Israel in international bodies and seeking indictments in the ICC. In response, vocal Israeli politicians have been calling for dismantling the PA. Israel’s official position is ambivalent. On the one hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear in a closed briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he rejects such calls for the PA’s destruction. He said the continued existence of a Palestinian administration managing the daily lives of almost all Palestinians in Judea and Samaria carries significant benefits, not least in the ongoing security cooperation. Therefore, Israel is willing to support its role and be of economic assistance. On the other hand, Netanyahu also asserted that his policy is to “cut off” Palestinian aspirations for full statehood status.Are we getting the Palestinians back to the table?

Under these circumstances, the Palestinian leadership has been reluctant to return to the Aqaba process, launched in late February at Jordan’s invitation (following Netanyahu’s visit to Amman in January). Despite efforts by US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf, the third meeting in the series, planned to be held (like the previous one) in Sharm el-Sheikh, has yet to be scheduled.

Some voices within the governing coalition in Israel denigrate the Aqaba process and have suggested that its work should be ignored. They bitterly criticized Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for having a conversation – on the occasion of Eid al-Adha – with one of the key Palestinian participants, Hussein al-Sheikh. However, the alternative course of action – further escalation, likely leading to a large-scale military operation in Jenin and beyond, and in parallel, policies designed to bring about the collapse of the PA – is firmly resisted at this stage by the Israeli defense establishment, and the prime minister shares their reservations. The costs and dangers of this option far outweigh its potential benefits at this stage – not least, considering the anticipated US (and European) reactions.

At the same time, the option of delivering on American and regional expectations for a renewed pursuit of a permanent status agreement is equally unrealistic, and not only because of the present Israeli government’s position. The gaps on all key issues are much too wide to bridge. Hence the need to concentrate, once again, on aspects of conflict management – with the Aqaba process as the preferred framework given the regional cover it provides for the Palestinian leadership, which is under severe pressure to avoid all bilateral transactions with the Israeli government.

Bringing the Palestinian team back to the table will not be easy. However, experience indicates that over time, the combined efforts of the US and the regional players – in this case, both Jordan and Egypt – can ultimately prevail. The Israeli government, for its part, will need to consider what gestures it can offer to ease the way, including by respecting previous understandings as to the pace of construction in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria or by other measures that improve the PA’s economic viability, as Netanyahu has already indicated.

The regional role – and the US position

Both Jordan and Egypt have vested interests in restoring the conflict management mechanism. Jordan, already the recipient of several waves of refugees – Palestinians in 1948, 1967, and 1991 (when hundreds of thousands were driven out of Kuwait), Iraqis in 1991 and 2003, and Syrians since the civil war began in 2013 – has no wish to see escalating violence on the other side of the river leading to another such influx. Its recent apprehension of a terrorist cell intent on attacking Israeli targets indicates that despite vocal differences, and a poisonous public atmosphere, the Jordanian authorities are still committed to the mutual interest in preventing the spread of radical violence.

The prospect of the northern Samaria confrontation spilling over to the Gaza Strip is troubling for Egypt and would present President Abdel Fattah Sisi with severe dilemmas. The Egyptian leadership is also worried about the possible demise of the PA and a simultaneous rise in the power of Hamas and elements associated with the regime’s sworn enemies, the Muslim Brotherhood. Close coordination with Israel on important matters, such as warfare against the Islamic State in Iraq, the Levant, and its “province” in Sinai, might be jeopardized.

It is, therefore, necessary and possible to coordinate closely with the regional partners and the US to design a way (albeit requiring some Israeli gestures) to bring all parties back to the table. Both Jordanian King Abdullah II and Sisi have inordinate influence over PA President Mahmud Abbas, and discretely – with the right mix of incentives and threats – should be able to prevail upon him to resume the talks.

A direct benefit for Israel – even if the efforts to reconvene fail due to Palestinian intransigence – would be to allay the fears in Washington, openly expressed in recent months, about Israel’s direction. The concern that the Israeli agenda is being set not by the defense establishment and its political proponents but by a radical “insurgency” within the government is leaving its mark on the “special relationship” with the US. Moreover, this comes at a time when close coordination is more necessary than ever in the face of the Iranian challenge.

Further down the road: Israel’s agenda at the Aqaba table

If (and it is yet far from certain) the Aqaba process can resume its work, there may be other benefits and opportunities. The very existence of a formal structure for Israeli-Palestinian talks, which has been in abeyance since the failure of then-secretary of state John Kerry’s mediation efforts in 2013-2014, provides useful political “cover” for the normalization and growing cooperation between Israel and others in the region – even if it is specifically oriented toward conflict management, not conflict resolution.

Thus, it may ease the way to reconvene the Negev Forum, perhaps with additional participants. Giving Jordan pride of place in the Aqaba process may finally help to induce it to join, and there are reports about possible attendance by others further afield. That could help generate economic benefits for the Palestinians, which cannot be discussed directly at the security-oriented Aqaba talks.

The same logic would assist in sustaining the impact of the I2U2 group (India, Israel, UAE, and the US, established in 2022). When conditions allow, it may also be relevant in rationalizing and easing the way toward a normalization “package” with Saudi Arabia (which at this stage is well over the horizon) alongside aspects under discussion at the US-Saudi bilateral level.

If the present level of tension can subside, there can be other goals that Israel could bring to the forum, above all, the need for a change (on all sides) in the levels of hostility in the public domain. That is relevant not only regarding the Palestinian arena. In Jordan, members of parliament regularly engage in vicious incitement, for instance, glorifying in public the Egyptian policeman who crossed the border and killed three Israeli soldiers in a terrorist attack. The intensity of such virulence in Egypt has been somewhat modified in recent years but still leaves much to be desired. In close coordination with the US participants – and at a proper stage, when the present turbulence will have subsided – such issues, which closely relate to the conflict management mission of the process, can be carefully put on the table – not in order to needle the other side but in the context of hope for change.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

July 15, 2023 | Comments »

Leave a Reply