The Guardian / February 27, 2023
Advent of Israel’s most right-wing government, and spiralling violence, expose dangers of light-touch diplomacy.
With an in-tray bulging with the war in Ukraine, the Chinese threat to Taiwan and the potential collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, the US state department has tried to avert its gaze from the clouds gathering over Israel and Palestine, but has now found it impossible to do so.
Since John Kerry, as secretary of state, expended diplomatic muscle trying to revive the Middle East peace process in the final year of the Obama administration, US Democrats have gently welcomed the rapprochement symbolized by the Abraham accords, but have not done much else. However, the advent of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, and violence spiralling out of control, have shown the dangers of light-touch diplomacy.
So the summit in the city of Aqaba on Sunday, the first of its kind in a decade, between military officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the US and the host Jordan, seemed a belated chance to limit the damage. For all the talk of it being a “security” as opposed to a “political” summit – a description designed to minimize resentment among domestic audiences unwilling to negotiate – the event was a chance to bring a modicum of political control to the streets. The Palestinian Authority, after all, has severed cooperation with Israel on security issues.
With the violence worsening, the meeting seemed the least participants could do.
The joint communique issued by Jordan afterwards committed Israel to “stop discussion of any new Jewish settlement units for four months and to stop authorisation of any outposts for six months”. It promised a regional security commission and a further summit in a month. A US national security adviser welcomed the meeting as a starting point.
But the breathing space that had apparently been created was suffocated within hours, the time it took for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to issue a tweet contradicting the summit’s conclusions.
He tweeted that “the building and authorisation in Judea and Samaria will continue according to the original planning and building schedule, with no change”, using the biblical term for the West Bank. “There is not and will not be any freeze.”
The denials seemed symbolic of the chaos with which the new Netanyahu coalition government has conducted itself since being elected in December. It also reflected the outsized power that the hardliners Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the national security and finance ministers respectively, are allowed to wield inside the coalition.
Ben-Gvir, who has a conviction for inciting racism, is in ministerial charge of the police. Smotrich has control of the military’s responsibility for civilian issues in the occupied territories, including the settlement project. Both men rejected the summit conclusions. “What happened in Jordan (if it happened), will remain in Jordan,” said Ben-Gvir.
In a sense, he was right. Within hours, the summit seemed an irrelevance. By Sunday afternoon, two Jewish settlers had been shot dead by a Palestinian gunman, and by Sunday evening, crowds of settlers had burned and vandalised buildings and cars in Palestinian villages in the West Bank. Too few Israeli soldiers were present to stop the torching.
The genesis of the summit was a low-key meeting between Israeli and Palestinian representatives that took place a fortnight ago, where it was agreed to calm the area. One of the results of the meeting was that the Palestinians withdrew a vote against Israel in the UN security council, saving the Biden administration from having to use its veto to protect an administration whose domestic policies, including the neutralising of the judiciary, it often abhors.
Now the US has a decision to make. Having re-dipped its toe in the Palestinian question by orchestrating the Jordan summit, it will have to decide whether to do more than make a minimal ritualistic call for restraint on both sides.
It could possibly ask pointed questions about the motives of the Israeli politicians nominally controlling the military. It could start to question the democratic direction of Israel. So far, there has been little sign that Biden is prepared to do that, but many more nights like those in Hawara, and the calculation may change.
Patrick Wintour is diplomatic editor for The Guardian