Representatives of Jordan, Palestine, Israel, the United States, and Egypt met in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh on March 19, 2023, in a continuation of the Aqaba Security Summit held February 26, 2023. The second summit was held under the same circumstances as the first: escalation of violence in the West Bank, tightened Israeli military measures, and parties in the Israeli government steadfast in their right-wing positions, which support the anti-Palestinian practices of settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The March summit’s final communiqué affirmed that the Palestinians and Israel should follow certain measures to build mutual confidence. The two summits, despite their lack of noticeable impact on the ground, can be considered an exercise to qualify the two parties to engage in broader peace talks. This can be achieved by the following:
- Holding more summits; a third summit within the month of Ramadan was agreed on.
- Ensuring the two parties abide by the understandings of the Aqaba Summit: halting unilateral measures for three to six months; Israeli commitment to stop discussing erecting any new settlement units for the next four months; and Israel not licensing any settlement outposts for the next six months.
- Establishing mechanisms for direct dialogue to reduce violence and incitement, and to address outstanding issues.
- Establishing a mechanism to take the necessary steps to improve the economic conditions of the Palestinian people, and to commit to preserving the historical status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem.
Challenges in the Period Between the Two Summits
The three-week period between the two summits witnessed an increase in the level of Israeli escalation on the ground, whether by the Israeli government itself or by settlers in the West Bank, an escalation that led to dozens of Palestinian casualties. In addition, some key figures in the Israeli government coalition called to reject the Aqaba Summit statement. All of this call for some observations.
First, the Israeli statements and positions immediately following the Aqaba Summit caused political compromise for Israel in front of the United States, Jordan, and Egypt. Such positions were about to afflict the Israeli policies.
It is true that Israel responded to pressure from the United States to attend the summit, but Tel Aviv continuing its policy without any change in its rhetoric increased the volume of international pressure on the Israeli government, the latest of which was the call by the European Union to reverse repealing the 2005 Disengagement Law that paves the way for the return of settlers to four settlements that were evacuated from the West Bank in 2005.
In addition, the White House summoned Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog to meet with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman, who expressed Washington’s deep concern over legislation green-lighting resettlement in the northern West Bank.
Second, the implicit understandings between Hamas and Israel, revealed by Hamas’s neutrality regarding the military escalation between Israel and the Al-Jihad al-Islami Movement in December 2022 and then by not translating Hamas escalating rhetoric regarding the Israeli provocations in the West Bank into any action.
Hamas’s position falls within what is described as a new phase in Hamas’s political project, along with Israel’s policy of “economy for security,” which eases the impact of the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip while allowing the transportation of medical materials and equipment, as well as increasing the number of work permits in Israel.
There are talks, sponsored by Egypt, that seek to maintain the calm and prevent the transfer of escalation in the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, limiting the escalation between Hamas and Israel is to reactions. The success of the Egyptian efforts means that Hamas is considered to be a silent or hidden partner in the Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh summits, and the subsequent summits to come.
Despite such understandings possibly diverting Hamas from any military escalation with Israel in the Gaza Strip, the same does not apply to other armed enclaves there if the security situation in the West Bank worsens, or if the Israeli provocations continue.
Hamas may not be able to contain the Al-Jihad al-Islami Movement or control all its members and military commanders on the ground. However, any escalation in Gaza Strip without Hamas’s participation remains limited in scope. Indeed, this is what happened in December 2022 after Israel assassinated Al-Jihad al-Islami Movement military leaders.
All this increases the pressure imposed on the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, undermines its security control there, as Hamas’ continued partial and limited military activities in the West Bank, and also as Hamas continuous calling for a Third Intifada there, which increases the PA’s motivation to prove its ability to control the situation and halt any escalation.
Third, the “common threat” posed by the Al-Jihad al-Islami Movement in the West Bank poses a challenge to Israel and Palestine, especially since the movement has relations with Iran and its allies in the region. This explains the continuous Israeli attacks against the movement, the latest of which was assassinating the leader of the Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Al-Jihad al-Islami, Ali Al-Aswad in the Damascus on March 19, 2023.
Fourth, the financial crisis suffered by the Palestinian Authority as a result of deducting large sums of money from the “clearing” as part of Israeli sanctions on the PA is seriously threatening the PA’s future. It has been unable to pay the salaries of its employees in full for the second year in a row. This led to the escalation of strikes and protest movements of vocational unions and syndicates, especially the teachers’ sector.
To a certain extent, all these observations give a "logical" explanation to the response of the Palestinian and Israeli sides to the American, Jordanian, and Egyptian pressures, aimed at calming the situation and preventing escalation during the month of Ramadan. These efforts, however, are countered the behaviours and speeches of some religious Zionist parties, that undermine the calm on the ground.
Smotrich: The Other Side of the Israeli Vision
At an event in Paris March 19 honouring a right-wing Zionist activist in France, statements by Israeli Foreign Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is both the leader of the Religious Zionist Party and the minister in the Ministry of Defense in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, shed light on a lesser-known perspective of Israeli positions that not only contrasted with those of the Palestinian Authority and its people, but with those of Jordan.
Smotrich delivered his speech with a map of “Greater Israel” displayed in front of him. This map featured the occupied West Bank, Jordan, and parts of Syria as part of Israel as envisioned by the founders of the Zionist right-wing, such as poet-soldier founder of the Jewish Self-Defense Organization Ze’ev Jabotinsky and two former Israeli prime ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.
Smotrich’s speech called to “erase the town of Huwara” from existence and declared that the Palestinian people are an “imaginary invention” that has only existed for the past 100 years.
The behaviours and statements at that event complicate the scene and made it more difficult to calm the situation on the ground, in addition to the damage these behaviours and statements inflicts on Israel’s foreign relations, they also shake the confidence of the countries involved in the truce regarding the Israeli government’s compliance with it.
Smotrich’s statements provoked international comment and criticism, especially from the United States and the European Union. His statements were also met with a strongly worded statement issued by Jordan’s Foreign Ministry, after which the Jordanian government summoned the Israeli ambassador to Amman.
The Israeli foreign minister statement reaffirming Israel’s commitment to the agreements signed with Jordan does not appear to have eased the official and popular reaction in Jordan. The Jordanian House of Representatives unanimously voted to expel the Israeli ambassador from Amman, and there are reports of a political movement pushing for implementation.
Although the House proposal is not binding on the executive authority, it signifies a growing demand from the public for a more assertive stance on Jordan’s relationship with Israel.
The United States and the European Union also condemned Smotrich’s statements. The French Foreign Ministry, where the event was held, described those statements as “irresponsible.” Many Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Syria condemned Smotrich’s statements. The Saudi Foreign Ministry described his view as “abusive and racist … [and helps] contribute to spreading hate speech and violence and undermining the efforts of dialogue and international peace.”
The Gap Between the Five Parties’ Positions
The gap between the positions of the parties participating in the summits is beyond the capacity of any summit to bridge since their discussions are limited to certain issues.
The Palestinian side participated in the two summits driven by complex political, economic, and security crises that threaten future political stability in the West Bank. By participating in these summits, the Palestinians bet on the possibility of Israeli concessions to Palestinian demands. But Tel Aviv may not respond to Palestinian demands. For instance, while Israel made promises at the Aqaba Summit to transfer the PA’s revenues from frozen taxes in Israel, it has not done so.
Israel, under American pressure, recognizes that these pressures will not result in significant concessions or agreements. In the meantime, Israel is moving forward with its procedures in the West Bank at an accelerated pace, while also ensuring the implementation of agreements with the Hamas movement to maintain calm in the Gaza Strip.
Egypt is primarily focused on maintaining the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and continuing its role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but with minimal costs. This is due to the more pressing challenges facing the Egyptian leadership, especially the nation’s economic crisis.
As for Jordan, which is more directly involved with the Palestinian situation, it urgently seeks to establish stability in the West Bank and prevent the exacerbation of security, economic, and political challenges before they morph into instability.
Jordan, however, cannot be expected to act alone in preventing the outbreak of a third intifada nor can it afford to lose security control over the West Bank. It has proven itself capable, though, of exerting political and diplomatic pressure, working at the international level to bring about a unified position condemning Israeli actions on the ground while pressing for a two-state solution.
Finally, upcoming summits have many steps to take before creating a breakthrough in major issues. Nonetheless, the two summits can meet many minor issues of big impacts, such as Israel offering more concessions and economic facilities to the Palestinian Authority, extending the agreement to stop unilateral Israeli measures, preventing encroachments on holy sites in Jerusalem, freezing settlements, and de-escalation on the ground. All of this may reduce the pressure squeezing the West Bank and prevent its collapse in the short and medium terms, at least.
On the other hand, the outcome of the internal crisis in Israel is reflected in the outcomes of not just the Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh summits but any and all upcoming summits. The political polarization inside Israel between right-wing, left-wing, and liberal forces has deepened societal rifts and reinforced doubts about the Israeli government’s ability to deal with the future repercussions this crisis.