Diplomacy vs. violence: Israeli-Palestinian talks face immediate test

Ammar Awad/Reuters
A man walks among cars burned the previous day in a rampage by Israeli settlers, in the West Bank town of Hawara, Feb. 27, 2023. One Palestinian died in the settler attack, which was carried out hours after a Palestinian gunman killed two settlers driving through the town.
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The United States, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority all had their reasons to participate in talks Sunday in Aqaba, Jordan, seen as pivotal in an attempt to de-escalate the deadly violence in the West Bank. Yet as of Tuesday, members of the Israeli government have distanced themselves from or denounced the talks, Palestinians have called for armed resistance, and Israeli lawmakers have called to “burn” Palestinian villages.

Even as the parties gathered Sunday, a Palestinian gunman attacked and killed two Israeli settlers driving through Huwara, in the West Bank. Less than an hour after participants in Aqaba issued a joint communique, a mob of settlers vowing revenge swept through Huwara, killing one Palestinian while torching homes and cars.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

To give peace a chance, the United States and Jordan brokered the highest-level Israeli-Palestinian talks in years, but violence, hate speech, and leadership woes are exposing the limitations of traditional diplomacy.

Questions are swirling over the ability of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to support the pledges made in Aqaba and restrain extremists on their respective sides.

“Unless we find agreement, we are looking at an even worse situation going forward,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told CNN Monday. “There is simply too much to lose here, there is too much at stake. If the commitment at Aqaba is honored then we might see some progress towards de-escalation.”

Before the ink dried Sunday on the agreement reached during the highest-level direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in years, violence burned in the West Bank – killings, revenge attacks, the torching of homes and cars.  

It was a vivid reminder for many of the urgent need for de-escalation and the immediate challenges facing this rare diplomacy, but also of the questionable ability of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to calm or even control the situation on the ground.

The Biden administration, Jordan, and Egypt insist that following through on Israeli and Palestinian commitments reached Sunday in Aqaba to “work towards a just and lasting peace” is the only path to avert even greater intercommunal violence.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

To give peace a chance, the United States and Jordan brokered the highest-level Israeli-Palestinian talks in years, but violence, hate speech, and leadership woes are exposing the limitations of traditional diplomacy.

Yet as of Tuesday, members of the Israeli government continued to distance themselves from or denounce the talks, Palestinians called for armed resistance, and Israeli lawmakers called to “burn” Palestinian villages. The doubts and rhetoric threatened to unravel the de-escalation agreement before it is implemented, exposing the limits of traditional diplomacy in polarized times.

Once a mainstay of American foreign policy, U.S.-arranged talks between Israelis and Palestinians have become increasingly rare. Far-right currents and political developments have made getting Israeli and Palestinian officials in the same room difficult – even as violence has escalated to record-levels. 

Which is why the talks in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, facilitated by the United States, Jordan, and Egypt, weeks in the making, were seen as a pivotal step forward.

Jehad Shelbak/Reuters
Jordanian members of the Islamic Action Front party protest against the meeting between top Israeli and Palestinian officials at the Red Sea port of Aqaba, in Amman, Jordan, Feb. 26, 2023.

As delegates from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt, and the Biden administration gathered in Aqaba, a Palestinian gunman attacked and killed two Israeli settlers driving through Huwara, in the West Bank. The town is adjacent to Nablus, site of a deadly Israeli military raid last week.

Less than an hour after participants issued the joint Israeli-Palestinian communique, which committed the sides to work for “de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence,” a mob of 400 settlers vowing revenge swept through Huwara, killing one Palestinian and injuring more than 100 others, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Viral videos showed plumes of black smoke blocking out the sky as the mob torched homes and cars – with the Israeli military largely standing by.

“The meeting in Aqaba took place against horrific incidents in the West Bank yesterday that unfolded as we were meeting, and that is another reason why those meetings are important,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told CNN on Monday.

“Because unless the parties talk, unless we find agreement, we are looking at an even worse situation going forward. There is simply too much to lose here, there is too much at stake. If the commitment at Aqaba is honored then we might see some progress towards de-escalation.”

Interest in de-escalation

On all sides there is a clear interest in tamping down violence.

Palestinian militia attacks on Israeli settlers in the West Bank and lone-wolf attacks on civilians in Israel have exposed the limited ability of the Israeli government to maintain security and order, making it increasingly difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rein in the far-right members of his hard-line government.

Israeli settler attacks and deadly Israeli military raids into the West Bank, which Palestinian Authority security services cannot engage or deter, has exposed the PA’s weakness in the eyes of Palestinians who increasingly rely instead on local militias for their protection. 

Jordan, too, is increasingly alarmed by the explosion of violence in the neighboring West Bank and the potential collapse of the PA, which could reverberate in the kingdom. King Abdullah intervened personally to facilitate the Aqaba talks.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
Israeli soldiers search a Palestinian's car after a fatal shooting attack Monday on a highway near the Dead Sea and the West Bank town of Jericho, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. The slain driver, who held citizenship in both the United States and Israel, was killed the day after two Israeli settlers and a Palestinian man died in separate attacks in the West Bank town of Huwara.

The Biden administration, which does not wish to see an explosion of violence become an added diplomatic burden as it faces Russia’s war in Ukraine and global competition with China, made the meeting and ongoing talks a priority, according to Arab and U.S. officials.

The Aqaba talks followed a string of recent high-level Biden administration visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah by CIA Director William Burns, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Hady Amr, the special representative for Palestinian affairs.

All parties are seeking to prevent a fresh wave of violence during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which this year coincides with Passover and Easter.

On Sunday, at the end of several hours of talks, Israel and the PA “confirmed their joint readiness and commitment to immediately work to end unilateral measures for a period of 3-6 months,” including “an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for 4 months,” according to the joint statement as shared by the U.S. State Department.

They also stressed “the importance of upholding unchanged the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem in word and practice,” and Jordanian custodianship of Islamic sites, including Al Aqsa and the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, which has been a frequent flashpoint.

In perhaps the biggest win for cooperation, the Israelis and Palestinians agreed “to pursue confidence-building measures and strengthen mutual trust in order to address outstanding issues through direct dialogue,” committing to meet again in Egypt in March, prior to the start of Ramadan.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
A general view of Jerusalem after a snowstorm, as seen from the Mount of Olives, shows the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City in the elevated compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, Jan. 27, 2022.

Political obstacles

Within hours it was clear that the de-escalation agreement faces an uphill political battle.

Pressures from the far-right in Israel led to confusion, obfuscation, and condemnation of what, exactly, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to.

The Israeli delegation to Aqaba was led by the national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, whom Mr. Netanyahu dispatched without informing his cabinet, many of whom oppose talks with the Palestinians. 

No sooner was the summit concluded and communique issued than the Israeli government began distancing itself from the agreements.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, an ultra-nationalist with responsibility for civilian affairs in the West Bank, said he “heard about this unnecessary conference from the media,” adding “there won’t be a freeze on [settlement] construction and development, not even for one day.”

Mr. Hanegbi issued his own statement confirming that Israel would move ahead with the already approved “regularization” of nine settler outposts and the construction of 9,500 housing units in the West Bank. He added that there would be “no restriction” on Israeli military activity in the West Bank.

Mr. Netanyahu himself finally issued a statement clarifying that “there is and will not be any freeze” on settlement building and that it will not amend the Israeli army’s access and operations in the West Bank.

Some hard-line members of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, meanwhile, cheered on the revenge attacks on Huwara.

Then there is the question of what, if any, influence Mr. Abbas’s autocratic and unelected PA has among Palestinians. The aging leader’s electoral mandate ended in 2009.

The evening before Aqaba, hundreds protested in Bethlehem and Jenin, denouncing the talks as a “betrayal” and accusing Mr. Abbas and his advisers of “selling out” Palestinian blood.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Jan. 31, 2023. Mr. Blinken was wrapping up a two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank with renewed appeals for Israeli-Palestinian calm amid an alarming spike in violence.

Dozens of political factions and organizations previously allied with Mr. Abbas criticized the talks and their outcome, saying he does not have the support or legitimacy to negotiate in Palestinians’ name. They question the wisdom of negotiating with a far-right Israeli government that has shown no desire for a peace process.

“Mahmoud Abbas is not a revolutionary; he is a diplomat that believes in diplomacy and non-violent protest as the only mechanisms to achieve Palestinians’ rights,” says Daoud Kuttab, the Palestinian journalist and columnist.

“From his point of view, he is pursuing talks for his people. He believes the best opportunity to defend his people and their rights when there is such a power imbalance is diplomacy – he does not care about popular support,” he says.

“But there is a political price to be paid. To say that these talks were ‘controversial’ is being generous.”

Implementation at stake

Palestinians are concerned that the Aqaba talks will lead to a resumption of security ties with Israel and a crackdown on militias such as the Lion’s Den in Nablus, which many view as the only forces protecting them in the face of increased settler attacks.

The gunman in Huwara Sunday reportedly was wearing a Lion’s Den t-shirt.

Waiting in the wings are Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Gaza-based Islamist militant groups, who denounced the “ill-fated” talks as a “betrayal.”

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, in a statement Sunday, cautioned that the talks in Jordan were “a starting point and that there is much work to do over the coming weeks and months.”

“Implementation,” he said, “will be critical.”

But many potential spoilers in Israel and the Palestinian territories vowed to obstruct that implementation.

“What happened in Jordan,” said Israeli national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, “stays in Jordan.”

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