It was described as a “significant breakthrough” by a Jordanian official, while Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the agreement would ‘’de-escalate violence” if implemented, but just as the details of the one-day security meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, on Feb. 26, were being announced, it became apparent once more that a rare attempt to bring Israeli and Palestinian officials together, in a bid to contain a spike in violence that was quickly getting out of control, was ill-fated. King Abdullah has been stressing the need to find a “political horizon” to give the troubled two-state solution a chance. The meeting was supposed to implement confidence building measures between the two sides.
Jordan, in coordination with the U.S. and Egypt, issued an invitation to top Israeli and Palestinian security officials to come to the resort town of Aqaba with the aim of stemming a spiral of violence and counter-violence that has gripped the occupied West Bank since the beginning of the year — roughly when Benyamin Netanyahu’s government, the most extreme in Israel’s history, was sworn in.
The rare public meeting, the first in many years, was attended by top U.S., Egyptian, and Jordanian officials. The timing was sensitive, having taken place just a few days after Israel had carried out a midday raid into Nablus, in the West Bank, to hunt down Palestinian militants. The operation led to the killing of two suspected militants, but also to the murder of at least 11 civilians, including a 72-year-old bystander and a 14-year-old boy.
Tensions in the West Bank have reached a dangerous level since the beginning of the year. Israeli soldiers had killed at least 60 Palestinians by Feb. 25, while no fewer than 14 Israelis were also killed in lone-wolf retaliatory operations. At least 50 Palestinian homes have been demolished in East Jerusalem since the beginning of the year on the orders of the extremist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. Israeli security officials have warned that a third Palestinian Intifada was not far off.
It is almost certain that Israeli security officials, including the head of the Shabak, Israel’s internal security service, came to Aqaba as a result of U.S. pressure. The meeting is believed to be part of a U.S. plan to boost the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security presence in militant hotspots such as Jenin Camp and Nablus. Jordan had denied reports that the Aqaba meeting aimed at training Palestinian SWAT teams in the kingdom.
Netanyahu’s coalition partners had no intention of stopping unilateral actions in the West Bank, halting the expansion of illegal settlements, or talking to the PA. The Biden administration, prodded by Jordan and Egypt, wanted to achieve calm ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which in recent years has become a season for violent clashes between Hamas, in Gaza, and Israel. What was different this time too was the fact that non-affiliated Palestinian militants in the West Bank were carrying out revenge attacks against Jewish settlers.
A joint communiqué issued following the Aqaba security meeting had hoped to impose a truce of four to six months, during which time Israel would refrain from authorizing the building of new settlements, demolishing Palestinians’ homes, and reducing its infiltration into Palestinian towns and refugee camps. In return, the PA would suspend pursuing punitive measures against Israel in international arenas and resume security coordination.
It was a high-stakes meeting for both sides. For Netanyahu, any commitment would provoke his far-right coalition partners — which is exactly what happened. For an aging, ailing, and deeply unpopular Mahmoud Abbas, it would be seen as rewarding the aggressor and backing off from indicting Israel internationally. He and his PA are already under attack from different Palestinian factions for selling out the resistance and doing nothing to protect the Palestinian people.
Jordan and Egypt share the view that a truce, especially during Ramadan, would give the cash-strapped PA some time to regroup. Certainly for Jordan, a vacuum left by the PA could be filled by Hamas or other armed groups in the West Bank, and that would be a major game changer.
While the Aqaba joint communiqué indicated that the two sides had agreed to halt unilateral moves, including authorizing new settlement building permits by Israel, and committed to “upholding unchanged the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem” — a reference to Jordan’s special role at al-Aqsa Mosque — no sooner had the agreement became public than Netanyahu’s coalition partners began to disown 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 Ben-Gvir, who tweeted later 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 any construction freeze over the Green Line. “Construction and regulation in Judea and Samaria will continue according to the original planning and construction schedule, without any changes. There is and will not be any freeze.”
That very evening an angry Jewish mob stormed the Palestinian town of Hawara, torching houses, shops, vehicles, trees, and anything else in retaliation for the earlier killing of two settlers near the town. One Palestinian was killed and over 100 were wounded. This was the reality of the situation on the ground that negated what was agreed at Aqaba.
With far-right ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet calling for blood and Finance Minister Smotrich saying the town of Hawara should be “erased,” it is futile to believe that any agreement between the Palestinians and Israel would last for more than a few hours.
The Aqaba debacle should underline the fact that Netanyahu is in no position to honor any commitment. This is what the U.S., Jordan, and Egypt should by now comprehend. The Hawara rampage, which the U.S. has denounced, is likely to repeat itself as long as the likes of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are in the driver’s seat of Netanyahu’s government.
The collateral damage from the collapse of the Aqaba agreement could inflame the situation in the West Bank a few weeks before the beginning of Ramadan. The PA could fall apart at any time and that is fine by Netanyahu’s far-right partners. What could come next is a cycle of violence that no one can contain. A third Intifada could very well spell the end of the two-state solution and open a Pandora’s box on all sorts of extreme possibilities.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
Photo by Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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