On the Verge of an Abyss?

Dr. Lior Lehrs March 2023
Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

Israel is located these days, since the establishment of Netanyahu’s new right-wing government, at a critical juncture, facing dramatic developments on various fronts. While the domestic arena is currently focused primarily on the new government’s judicial overhaul, the developments in the Israeli-Palestinian arena are drawing increasing interest, and concern, among the international community, on a scale not seen in recent years. In the two months since the establishment of the government, the UN Security Council convened five meetings dedicated to the conflict, some of which were classified as emergency meetings following exceptional events, including Israel’s National Security Minister Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the deadly clashes at the Jenin refugee camp, and the violent events in Hawara. 

A series of indicators reflect heightened international attention to the conflict since the new government assumed power. The growing US involvement was manifested in visits by Secretary of State Blinken, National Security Advisor Sullivan, and CIA Director Burns, who met with the leaderships in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and in condemnations by senior US officials of the government policy on the settlements. This involvement includes unusual steps not seen in the past decade, namely mediation activity between the parties on formulating understandings (as a condition for withdrawing the Palestinian proposal to condemn Israel in the Security Council), and a decision to leave a team of administration officials in the region to monitor events and promote de-escalation. Until recently, the Palestinian issue seemed to be a very low priority for the administration, and it was only raised on the margins of President Biden’s visit to the region in July 2022. 

Similar dynamics are evident in the policies of other international actors. The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, and Britain joined Blinken in issuing an unusual statement expressing “grave concern” over the government’s policy on the settlements; Senior officials from the European Union, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League initiated a special meeting in Brussels on the Palestinian issue; 94 countries signed a statement protesting the government’s punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority (PA); and 15 Security Council members issued a presidential statement (for the first time in eight years) condemning Israeli policy.  

These developments complement steps by regional actors – chief among them Jordan and Egypt –conveying public and secret messages of concern over the new Israeli government’s actions and fear of escalation. The United Arab Emirates, Israel’s partner in the 2020 Abraham Accords, also plays an important role in this process and initiated, as an UNSC member, a few Security Council meetings on the issue and worked with the Palestinians on drafting a UNSC statement condemning Israel, and it also canceled a planned visit by Netanyahu. 

The Feb. 26 Aqaba summit with the participation of Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian, and American representatives was a prominent expression of increasing international involvement in the conflict. A public meeting of senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, under regional or international auspices, has not taken place since the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative (2013-2014). In fact, the Aqaba Document agreed at the meeting is the first Israeli-Palestinian political memorandum of understanding since the Kerry era.  

These developments follow a decade of distinct lack of international involvement in the conflict, and a decline in the degree of international interest in the issue. The world was discouraged by the rounds of negotiations that failed to yield agreement, and did not detect political readiness for a breakthrough on either side. Other issues and arenas attracted greater international attention – both in the region (Iran, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan) and on the global stage (China, COVID-19, the rise of populism and, more recently, of course, the war in Ukraine). Additionally, the Quartet – the international group (US, Russia, UN and the European Union) that was created to sponsor the peace process, has been paralyzed in recent years. 

But these days the world is increasingly recognizing alarming signs and pushing for increased engagement. In many cases of conflicts around the world, international intervention begins, or increases, when escalation develops, or when there is a sense that the parties are approaching a confrontation. The world identifies that the Israeli-Palestinian arena is particularly explosive and sensitive. Indications of this on the ground are numerous and already during 2022 we witnessed a sharp increase in violence in the conflict. The focal points of friction and confrontation are intensifying and accumulating: from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, through the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, Nablus, Jenin, Hawara (in the West Bank), the Palestinian prisoners’ protest in Israeli jails, and the recent increase in Israel-Hamas hostilities in Gaza Strip. 

In the new Israeli government coalition, actors who served as extreme “spoilers” from outside of the system, are now working within the government in key positions. Radical ideas, such as annexation and violating the status quo on Jerusalem’s holy sites, are being openly discussed by senior coalition spokespersons, and steps once considered beyond the pale, such as legalizing illegal outposts in the West Bank, are becoming official policy. Indications of growing instability have also emerged on the Palestinian side, against the backdrop of the weakening and illegitimacy of the PA, along with increased attacks against Israelis, and the ongoing internal conflict between Fatah and Hamas. Added to all this is the constant fear of escalation during the month of Ramadan (starting March 22), and especially on the days it coincides with Passover (starting April 5). 

Many feel that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at a critical crossroads and is moving quickly towards an explosion. A dual policy is at play in Israel, with one government arm, led mainly by the security establishment, trying to calm tensions and strengthen the PA, while the other arm, led by representatives of the Religious Zionist party, contributes to unrest, backs up settler violence, and hopes for the dissolution of the PA and the opening it will provide to promote annexation. This duality was evident when National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi was dispatched to Jordan to sign the Aqaba document, while Ministers Smotrich and Ben-Gvir publicly denied the Aqaba understandings. On the Palestinian side, the PA leadership is working to promote stability and improve governance. But it faces increased public opposition, including over its continued security coordination with Israel (as reflected in the growing Palestinian support for the Lion’s Den and the intensification of demonstrations), and efforts by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to exploit its weakness in order to enhance their power. 

Under this backdrop, three main actors – the United States, Egypt, and Jordan – try hard to prevent a seemingly inevitable escalation and to create political and security understandings that will prevent deterioration. They identify a dangerous combination of elements generating the potential for a “perfect storm” and are trying to play the role of the child sticking its finger in the dam. This is an almost impossible task given the existing political conditions, the dangerous dynamics on the ground, and after many years of a prolonged stalemate in the peace process. We can hope that it is not too little, too late, and wish that the international efforts will move beyond ad-hoc preventive diplomacy, toward a more comprehensive strategy and the creation of a long-term political horizon. 

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