Archival photo of King Abdullah, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and President Mahmoud Abbas
A meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh on Sunday between representatives of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel, Egypt, the US, and Jordan aimed to promote de-escalation and prevent further flare-ups of violence through incitement, incendiary statements, and other provocative actions.
This week’s meeting built on the outcomes of a similar one in Aqaba in February, with participants reaffirming the commitments they made: to stop unilateral actions, uphold unchanged the historical status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem and take steps to reduce tensions ahead of the holy month of Ramadan. In addition, they agreed to pursue confidence-building measures to generate a political environment conducive to the discussion of pending issues through direct dialogue.
According to a statement issued by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the Israeli government and PA reiterated their readiness to act to end unilateral actions for three to six months, including an Israeli commitment to stop discussions of new settlement construction for four months and to halt the issuing of permits for new settlement outposts for six months. The statement also said Palestinian and Israeli representatives reaffirmed “their unwavering commitment to all previous agreements between them, in particular, the legal right of the Palestinian National Authority to carry out security responsibilities in Area (A) of the West Bank, in accordance with existing agreements” and agreed to “work together towards realising this objective”.
Participants agreed to create a mechanism to facilitate the steps needed to improve the economic conditions of the Palestinian people, as laid out in previous agreements, and to significantly improve the PA’s financial circumstances. The mechanism will report back to the five parties in a follow-up meeting scheduled next month.
Although the news from Sharm El-Sheikh was heartening, the developments that followed cast doubt on the seriousness of the Israeli government’s commitments. Speaking at a ceremony in Paris on Sunday, Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said “there is no such a thing as a Palestinian people, Palestinian history or Palestinian language.”
The remarks immediately triggered an outcry.
“They are inflammatory and unacceptable,” said Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid. Their racist connotations and clear denial of historical and geographical facts not only provoke tension and anger among Palestinians, but are repulsive to all people of conscience. As Abu Zeid pointed out, Smotrich’s statements undermined de-escalation efforts ahead of Ramadan which “this year coincides with Christian and Jewish religious holidays, all of which embody the ideas of tolerance, peace and respect for the other.”
In addition to obstructing the Sharm El-Sheikh process and efforts to restore calm, Smotrich seemed intent on compounding the crisis beyond the current Palestinian-Israeli confrontation. During the Paris ceremony, Smotrich spoke of a map of an expanded Israel whose borders encompassed the West Bank and parts of Jordan. Jordanian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Sinan Majali said that the Israeli minister’s actions “represent reckless incitement that is a violation of international norms and the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty”.
Observers in Cairo said that Smotrich’s remarks reflected Israel’s intention to backtrack on its commitments in Sharm El-Sheikh. Several sources in Cairo familiar with developments predicted that the Israeli government will deliberately inflame tensions in the occupied Palestinian territories and occupied Jerusalem in an attempt to undermine Washington, the guarantor of the outputs of the summit. Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken with US President Joe Biden by phone, the conversation did little to thaw the ice between them.
Another major source of tensions between the US and Israel is the Israeli judiciary crisis precipitated by the Netanyahu government. Israel has been swept by waves of mass protest and the polarisation has reached the point where some observers are speaking of civil war.
Recent communications between the US and Israel have also covered a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet another area where the US has made no headway. According to Egyptian sources, Washington’s immediate priorities are the internal crisis in Israel and defusing the situation in the Palestinian territories to avert an even worse explosion that the one triggered by Israel’s raid of Huwwara.
Sources in Cairo also predict repercussions from the assassination operation targeting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leader Ali Ramzi Al-Aswad in the Damascus suburb of Qudssaya. In an implicit acknowledgement of Israeli responsibility for the assassination, Netanyahu opened his weekly cabinet meeting saying that Israel would “get to the terrorists and the architects of terror everywhere”. PIJ officials have vowed to avenge Al-Aswad’s murder which could set off another round of escalation between Israel and the Palestinian resistance in Gaza which could spread to the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem.
Despite the challenges it faces with the Knesset votes on controversial legislation extending government control of the judiciary, the Netanyahu coalition is holding together, Said Okasha, an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “This will remain the case unless a party such as Shas withdraws from the coalition, and there is a precedent for such a situation,” he said.
Okasha pointed out, however, that this would put the opposition, which would assume power, in a predicament given it contains both conservative religious and liberal secularist parties which disagree over many issues. It would be difficult to sustain the stability of a government of that sort. In Okasha’s opinion, regardless of what befalls the Netanyahu government or its successor if it falls, all scenarios point to things spiralling out of control both inside Israel and between the Israelis and Palestinians.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly