Egypt and the US have started work on creating a path to jumpstart negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis in an effort to reinforce calm in the region and defuse the recent rising tensions.
The current regional and international situation is more conducive to progress on this track, especially after the change in government in Israel with the resignation of former prime minister and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu and the formation of a new cabinet formed of left and centre parties headed by right-wing leader Naftali Bennett.
Another feature of the international situation that is conducive to further talks is the presence of the new US administration in Washington under President Joe Biden.
On Sunday, US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hadi Amr arrived in Israel to discuss issues including the Gaza Strip and moves on the political track with the Palestinians. Amr will visit Ramallah within days to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the same issues.
According to the Israeli media, Amr is working to realise two aims, the first of which is to prevent the triggering of renewed tensions between Israel and the Palestinian factions in Gaza. He is expected to put pressure on Israel to ease the siege on Gaza since the end of the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip in May.
The second aim is to focus on paving the way for the return of the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority (PA) to the negotiating table and to lead back to the peace process. Peace talks broke down several years ago after Israel took measures that destroyed the foundations of the peace agreement between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel.
It also took advantage of Palestinian divisions by claiming that there was no Palestinian partner to work with on the political process. Israel argues that the PA has no representation in the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of Hamas.
Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met with his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid in Brussels, where he emphasised the importance of jumpstarting the current stalemate between the Palestinians and Israelis in order to relaunch fair and comprehensive talks based on international principles and UN Security Council Resolutions.
This would guarantee the creation of a connected and viable Palestinian state within the borders of 4 June 1967 with East Jerusalem as its capital, he said, and would be one of the main pillars of security and stability in the region.
Shoukri called on the Israeli government not to take measures that could undermine the chances of creating a suitable atmosphere for peace and stability or increase tensions and the possibility of escalation. Egypt has a clear and well-defined position on working on both tracks, in order to prevent the introduction of causes for escalation and forge ahead with the creation of a climate where the two sides can hold negotiations and make life easier for the Palestinian people.
The PA has preceded these efforts with a list of demands that are essential for rebuilding confidence with Israel and eventually the return to negotiations between the two sides. According to a document broadcast by Israel’s Channel 12 TV, which was not denied by the PA, a list of different Palestinian demands will be sent to the US as a prerequisite for Palestinian participation in the negotiations with Israel.
The document was produced after the PA found out that the US intends to promote an initiative for dialogue between the Palestinians and Israelis as a precondition for a return to the negotiating table by the two sides.
The Palestinian list includes humanitarian and political demands, as well as demands relating to Palestinians living in Israeli cities, most notably the re-opening of Orient House and other Palestinian institutions shut down in 2001 in East Jerusalem.
It also includes restoring previous arrangements at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, scaling down Israeli police activities at the mosque, and preventing raids on the mosque by Israeli settlers.
The demands include an end to the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem, especially in the district of Sheikh Jarrah, and the release of prisoners who should have been set free in 2014 as part of the Oslo Accords signed by the PLO and Israel in 1993 had Israel honoured its commitments.
The list also includes demands for the release of female prisoners, the elderly, minors and the bodies of martyrs.
The PA is demanding an end to the expansion of Israeli settlements, including construction in East Jerusalem, the evacuation of all settlement outposts on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, an end to the demolition of homes in the Jordan Valley and a halt of raids on Palestinian towns.
The demands include issues pertaining to Palestinians living in Israeli cities, such as renewing the process of the reunification of Palestinian families and increasing the number of work permits in Israel.
Regarding the Palestinian security apparatus, the list demands the return of weapons confiscated by Israel from the Palestinian security forces and the return of Palestinian officials and customs officers to the Al-Karameh Bridge, as was the situation after the Oslo Accords. The PA also wants to build an international airport on the West Bank, a free-trade zone near Jericho, and a railway system.
On economic issues, the PA wants to dedicate areas in Zone C (under Palestinian control according to the Oslo Accords), which represents 60 per cent of the West Bank, to factories, power plants and tourist projects. It wants to boost its activities in Zone B (areas under both Palestinian and Israeli control) and amend the Paris Protocol on economic relations to remove tariffs on goods going into the West Bank. It wants to see the upgrading of the cell phone network in the West Bank to 4G.
The Palestinian demands are partly based on the Oslo Accords and partly in reaction to Israel’s imposition of de facto policies since then. The PA needs these demands to be met in order to convince Palestinian forces of the viability of the peace process with Israel, after years of mistrust between the two sides beginning with the invasion of the West Bank in 2002 and Israeli policies to carry out the Judaisation of East and West Jerusalem.
According to Israeli analysts, the demands, if met, would improve conditions in the Palestinian territories but would be difficult for Bennett, Lapid, Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked, and Minister of Justice Gideon Saar to fulfill.
Channel 12 reported that it was clear to the Americans and Palestinians that the incumbent Israeli government would not be able to fulfill most of the demands. It said that the aim was to raise the threshold of the demands, because the PA understood it would likely see very few, if any, of them met.
Despite its urgency, the Palestinian issue is not a priority for Bennett’s government, which is facing internal and existential troubles that could result in its demise due to polarisation within the coalition itself. This is a cabinet mostly composed of left and centre parties led by a right-wing figure with support from the party of Mansour Abbas, who represents some of the Palestinians inside Israel. It will need time to harmonise the positions of its key components.
Another challenge due to the composition of the government is the personal rivalry between Bennett and his predecessor Netanyahu, who is convinced that Bennett took advantage of the right-wing to win seats in the Knesset but now leads a government that does not respect the views of the right-wing in Israel.
This has caused Bennett to take up hardline positions, even more than Netanyahu on some issues, in order to maintain right-wing support and appeal to the mood in Israel.
Israel views the Gaza Strip as a more pressing matter because there are Israeli prisoners in Gaza whose families are putting pressure on the government, and the situation in Gaza is linked to the political and security situation in Israel.
There have been intermittent confrontations between Gaza and Israel, as well as international pressure on Israel to end the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. The PA is not present in Gaza and has no real influence there, which makes moving towards peace with the PA a more complicated option for the Israeli government.
The great gap between the Palestinian positions and demands, on the one hand, and what the Israeli government can deliver under the current circumstances, on the other, creates a serious obstacle for any mediation efforts to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.
Nonetheless, reviving the peace process is a demand that is now supported by the efforts of influential players in the light of the currently bleak prospects for Palestinian-Israeli relations due to the possible collapse of the PA as it faces serious economic and internal challenges.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.