Many years hence and when historians are debating who was mainly responsible for scuttling the two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, I suspect that the consensus among them will be that one Israeli politician was the culprit. They will likely point the finger at present Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
From his first mandate as Israel’s prime minister back in 1996, Netanyahu has done irreparable harm to the chances of peace and reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israelis. His latest government is considered to be one of the most extreme as far as peace with the Palestinians is concerned since the creation of the Israeli state in 1948.
The political game that he has been playing after taking the reins of power in Israel has been to portray his cabinet as being divided between those who advocate the annexation of the Occupied West Bank and those who do not object to a peace deal with the Palestinians but on Israeli terms. He has been claiming that he is doing his best to maintain the political balance between the hawks and the less-hawkish members of his cabinet.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however. In fact, Netanyahu is supportive of the hawks, very much in line with the example of his mentor former Israeli prime Minister Menachem Begin, but is trying to convince the international community, and particularly the US administration, that the Palestinians are the ones responsible for the rising tensions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The last few weeks have witnessed a flare up in the West Bank at the hands of Israeli settler vigilantes who went on a rampage in a Palestinian village called Hawara. Netanyahu’s minister of finance, himself drawn from the settlers’ ranks, Bezalel Smotrich, demanded that the village be “wiped out.”
In order to contain the rising armed violence in the West Bank, Jordan called for an emergency meeting between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This took place on 26 February at Aqaba in Jordan and was also attended by Jordanian, US, and Egyptian officials.
After the hastily arranged Aqaba meeting, a joint communiqué was released in which the Palestinians and Israelis committed themselves to all previous agreements and to work towards a just and lasting peace.
The two sides confirmed, according to the communiqué, their “joint readiness and commitment to end unilateral measures for a period of three to six months.” They also recognised the importance of upholding the “historic status quo” at the holy sites in Jerusalem while stressing the Hashemite custodianship of these sites and the special role of Jordan.
The participants agreed to meet again at Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt in March to go over the progress achieved in carrying out the objectives laid down in the communiqué.
Fewer than 24 hours after the Aqaba meeting ended, the extremists in the Israeli cabinet announced that the Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank would continue regardless of the Aqaba communiqué. The Israeli prime minister himself sounded the retreat from the commitments that the Israeli team at the Aqaba meeting had signed on to, especially by “legalising” outposts built by the settlers and building new settlements.
This retreat on the part of the Israeli government raises questions about the scheduled follow-up meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, all the more so since Israeli soldiers are now killing Palestinians almost every day. Over the last two months alone, the Israeli military has killed 61 Palestinians. The question is what benefit will the delegations to the planned Sharm El-Sheikh meeting get from it other than the Israelis?
The US reaction has been forceful in public, but we should not expect more than that from Washington. The high level coordination between the US and Israel is concentrated now on Iran and how to prevent it from manufacturing a nuclear bomb. Both the Americans and the Israelis have said that they will go the extra mile to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin is scheduled to visit Israel, Egypt, and Jordan in the period from 6 to 8 March.
Meanwhile, some US Congressmen known for their support for Israel have prepared a letter to US President Joe Biden urging him “to use all the diplomatic tools available to prevent Israel’s far right government from further damaging the nation’s [Israel’s] democratic institutions and undermining the potential for two states for two peoples.”
They added that in the present fragile situation, “consistent and sustained US diplomatic leadership is critical to prevent counterproductive unilateral actions and prevent violent escalations.”
The letter, prepared by Representatives Rosa DeLauro, Jane Schakowsky, and Jim McGovern, all strong supporters of Israel, further stated that in the event that the Israeli Knesset votes to strip Israel’s judiciary of the capacity to hold its far right government in check, the president should make clear that the US will firmly oppose any moves towards annexation that the Israeli government may pursue as a result.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main lobbying group for Israel in the US, has been trying to convince the Congressmen that sending the letter would be ineffective and counterproductive, insisting instead that the present strategy of the Biden administration is working. Of course, the overall security and political environment in the Occupied West Bank tells a different story.
If for one reason or another the three US Congressmen change their minds, another letter, this time from a US Senator, was already delivered to Biden last week.
Senator Peter Welch (Democrat - Vermont) wrote that “it is time to acknowledge what is painfully apparent, as far as Netanyahu’s government is concerned, that the two state solution is dead.” He added that Netanyahu’s government “dismisses the long term security threat his government’s policy of de facto annexation poses to Israel.”
Quoted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Welch said that if this policy continues, the US advocacy of the two state solution will be “meaningless.”
He spoke the truth. The Arab governments should listen to him and act accordingly. There must be no normalisation with Netanyahu’s government. Postponing the Sharm El-Sheikh meeting will perhaps send a credible message to the Israeli government that the time for more serious efforts to negotiate peace and security has come.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly