Critical Neighbors


A collection of analysis by members of an Israel Policy Forum task force offering four regional perspectives on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Navigating Normalization:

The U.S., Saudi Arabia, and the Israeli-Palestinian Arena

October 2023

The much-discussed Israeli-Saudi normalization process is anything but bilateral. Besides the two parties, it has implications for a range of U.S. interests and holds the promise of inching Palestinians towards self-determination by reviving hopes for an eventual two-state outcome.

Four-party negotiations, let alone over matters of both historic and strategic significance, are inherently complex. It remains uncertain whether these efforts will succeed.

Focusing primarily on the Palestinian dimension of the unfolding process, four distinguished experts—an Israeli, a Palestinian, a Saudi, and an American—offer their takes on what is at stake and what it will take to complete a U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal that advances the goal of Palestinian statehood.

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Israeli-Palestinian Violence:

Recurring Rounds and Deteriorating Dynamics

May 2023

Following another Israel-Gaza round of violence, it is worth noting the role of Jordan, Egypt, and the U.S. in trying to prevent the fighting, and Egypt’s success in ending it.

Below are four perspectives—Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian—on the situation, each accentuating different dimensions of the latest military escalation between Israel and Gaza militants: from efforts to avert a crisis, to its characteristics, to early implications. 

The opinions and proposals expressed in these pieces are only reflective of the respective authors’ opinions and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of Israel Policy Forum

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A Perfect Storm: Security Challenges Meet Internal Crises

by Nimrod Novik

Israel at age 75 has yet to define its character and agenda. At home, it is struggling to balance its Jewish and democratic values and shield its democracy from an assault by a coalition of extremists seeking to remove legal constraints on the policy agendas of annexationists, Jewish supremacists, Haredim, and libertarians. Next door, failing to define its future vis-à-vis its Palestinian neighbors in Gaza and the West Bank, Israel is facing increasingly frequent rounds of violence in the former and galloping annexation of the latter. Both trends have already affected relations with recent normalizers and undermined prospects for further expanding Israel’s regional ties.

Below is one Israeli’s perspective on the latter two concerns: developments in the Palestinian and regional arenas.

Gaza First

Israel launched its 17th Gaza operation in under two decades on May 9 with the targeted assassination of senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives in response to over 100 rockets fired at Israel just a week earlier. Dubbed Operation Shield and Arrow, to Israelis it served as a vivid reminder of the outstanding intelligence and operational capabilities of Israel’s security agencies, as well as of the price paid repeatedly by—and the admirable resilience of—residents of Israeli communities in close proximity to the Gaza Strip. It also proved wrong assumptions by some third parties that Israel’s internal political crises have weakened it militarily. However, with over 1000 rockets fired at Israeli population centers, this round of fighting also served as a reminder that the IDF alone cannot solve the Gaza problem; that such problems do not lend themselves to exclusively military solutions; and of the futility of the strategy embraced by successive Israeli governments of weakening the Palestinian Authority and thereby strengthening Hamas’ control of the Strip and its standing in the West Bank.

While successive governments have refused to explore political or diplomatic alternatives to this ‘more of the same’ approach (1), some politicians as well as security officials and experts are pushing for a substitute that reflects a mindset best summarized as “what has not been accomplished by force can be achieved by more force.” This strategy’s advocates argue for a major ground invasion of the Strip, with the objective of getting rid of its various armed terror groups “once and for all.” It appears that memories of 18 years of a similarly futile effort in Lebanon (1982-2000), ending with a unilateral withdrawal that saw Hezbollah all but take over the country to the north of Israel, have thus far deterred Israeli leaders from repeating that mistake in the south. Indeed, detractors argue that, like in Lebanon, once Israel invades Gaza, it would have no exit strategy save for withdrawing unilaterally again, which would lead to an even more chaotic and belligerent reality.

The appointment of Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yoav Galant as minister of defense provided that macho mindset with a most potent promoter. He has already (justifiably) pushed for targeted assassinations of terror perpetrators to restore deterrence and for (unacceptably) moving forward with these targeted assassinations despite concerns of ‘collateral damage’ (which under his predecessors had been cause to abort such operations). A third, most troubling feature of his operational approach is his support for what is dubbed “a ground maneuver,” which applies here to a Gaza ground invasion. One wonders if that has not yet happened due to the objections of those who have not forgotten the Lebanon experience, including a weaker yet risk-averse prime minister and the IDF top brass, or if the defense minister and the government are waiting for a more opportune moment.

Jerusalem: the Eternal Preamble

Although the recent round of fighting originated with PIJ firing rockets at Israel in reaction to the death from a prolonged hunger strike of one of its members, who was imprisoned in Israel, it came only weeks after Israel experienced a multi-front rocket attack. Coming from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, it was all Hamas’ doing, and it was all about Jerusalem. Moreover, the Jerusalem Day flag march, set to happen not long after Operation Shield and Arrow began, was provocatively routed through East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods. Given that the flag march had in previous years triggered a multi-front Israeli-Palestinian escalation, there were concerns that what began as an Israel-PIJ confrontation could take a major turn for the worse. Fortunately, an Israel-PIJ ceasefire preceded Jerusalem Day, and the march—while it featured ugly anti-Palestinian chanting and was followed by lead provocateur Minister Itamar Ben Gvir ascending the Temple Mount—triggered no major incidents, and a wider escalation did not materialize.

Recognizing the importance of Jerusalem’s holy shrines among Arabs and Muslims worldwide, Hamas has long sought to be acknowledged as their defender. In recent years, the convergence of the Jewish holiday of Passover with Islam’s Ramadan offered unique opportunities to make that point. Besides Hamas’ (and others’) agitation, two mutually reinforcing changes in Israel contributed to the explosiveness of those moments. First, Israeli Jewish religious customs are shifting—Haredi rabbis’ rulings against Jewish visits to the Temple Mount are being superseded by those national religious rabbis who encourage it. Second, Israel underwent political change when in order to bolster his election prospects, Prime Minister Netanyahu facilitated the election of Jewish supremacist parties and brought their leaders into his coalition, thus emboldening their messianic constituents. Both changes drove an erosion in the status quo on the Temple Mount, which had been best codified by the same Netanyahu a few years earlier: “Muslims pray, others visit.” The increasingly massive Jewish ascent to the Mount, as well as Jewish prayer, served Hamas (and others) in sounding alarms about Muslim access to Haram al-Sharif and its al-Aqsa mosque being under threat.

There is no place where the convergence of extremists on both sides triggers violence more than in Jerusalem, specifically on Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Indeed, in May 2021 under Netanyahu, such provocations triggered a multi-front escalation that lasted 11 days. A year later, the Bennett-Lapid government took steps to prevent it from recurring. Even though those proved insufficient and similar mistakes were made, clashes at the site were contained and did not trigger escalation with Gaza or on other fronts. Yet, as noted above, the convergence of the holidays last month saw multi-front violence erupt yet again.

The Bennett-Lapid government’s success in maintaining relative calm during the confluence of the holidays cannot be attributed to tactical differences in handling the situation. Indeed, it repeated the major error in failing to prevent Israeli police from entering the mosque and clashing with violent Palestinian youth barricaded therein, which produced troubling, offensive images that went viral on social media. Just as they did under Netanyahu (2021), under Bennett-Lapid (2022), and again under Netanyahu (2023), these clashes and images served Hamas’ (and other hostiles’) cries that “al-Aqsa is in danger.”

In trying to figure out why similar conduct by different Israeli governments yields very different results—multi-front violence in 2021 and 2023, but none in 2022—one might suggest that an Israeli government that is neither disrespectful of Muslim religious sensitivities nor perceived to be out to establish Jewish supremacy over Islam’s third holiest shrine deprives allegations of a Jewish takeover of al-Aqsa of any credibility. Consequently, bookended by two Netanyahu coalitions that conducted themselves in a manner that reinforced such suspicions, the Bennett-Lapid government projected a very different image with appropriate results.

Regional Players: “[Their] Mind Is Stuck on Wait and See”(2)

Important developments that have little, if anything, to do with Israel have affected major regional shifts have also impacted Israel’s place in the region. These include the restoration of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations, the upgrading of UAE-Iranian diplomatic relations, efforts to stabilize and possibly resolve the Yemen crisis, Syria’s reinstatement into the Arab League, and much more.

Nonetheless, Israel’s conduct has also contributed to changes in the region’s approach to  normalization, both in terms of its pace and its scope. This has to do with perceived changes in three attributes:

Internal Stability

While the region used to view Israel as a stable and stabilizing force, it no longer does. With five consecutive election cycles failing to produce a durable government, and with the current unprecedented governance crisis, it no longer looks stable. Moreover, with extremist provocateurs, Jewish supremacists, and ultra-nationalist annexationists serving in high-level positions and corresponding fringe voices in society emboldened, it is no longer viewed as stabilizing either.

Security Prowess

Whatever the calculations that led to an uncharacteristically soft Israeli reaction to rockets fired at it from Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria in early April, that reaction must have reinforced trends detected by Israeli intelligence, whereby friends and foes alike concluded that internal instability undermined security potency. Such misperceptions were apparently nourished also by massive protests by IDF reservists against the government’s assault on democratic values and institutions. As regional adversaries raised questions about the IDF’s operational preparedness and resolve, attempts were made to push the envelope of challenges, as exemplified in early March by an unprecedented Hezbollah attempt to detonate a major explosive device deep in Israeli territory, or Iran’s launch of an assault drone, which was shot down by the Israeli air force.

Whereas Israelis have no doubt about reservists’ ability to decouple protest against the government’s attempt to undo democracy from attending to security duties, one cannot expect regional adversaries to appreciate that distinction. Consequently, doubts about Israel’s security preparedness endure.

The U.S. Factor

For many decades, Israel was rightly viewed as a potent advocate for third parties in Washington. Starting with Egypt’s President Sadat in the 1970s, many in the region and beyond have assumed that the road to Washington transits through Jerusalem.

Given its composition, policies, and statements, the current Netanyahu government is no longer viewed as an asset, but rather as a liability for friends who need help with the U.S. administration and Congress. For Israelis, whose prime minister is not perceived as fully inaugurated before being received at the White House, President Biden’s refusal to issue the invitation and making his reluctance public was but the most visible manifestation of his disapproval of Netanyahu’s conduct. Also indicative was the change in the nature of the administration’s reaction to the recent Israeli military operation in Gaza. Whereas on similar occasions in the past Washington provided Israel with the time it needed to extract adequate cost from perpetrators—in May 2021 it took the administration 10 days before it called for an end to hostilities—this time both National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made those phone calls early on the third day of fighting, with a sharper message coming from Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman the day after. Likewise, administration spokespersons have used harsher language than in the past, in reaction to Israeli settler violence, Minister Smotrich’s despicable statement on the Huwara pogrom, Ben Gvir’s provocations on Temple Mount, and most recently a government decision to violate a predecessor’s commitment to Washington regarding the vacated settlement of Horesh. Though such reactions have thus far been confined to words rather than deeds, regional allies old and new, much like adversaries, cannot miss the changing tone. In 2023, the U.S. administration is no fan of the current Israeli government. 

The Crown Jewel: KSA

When forming his current coalition, Prime Minister Netanyahu placed normalization with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia among his four top priorities. For some observers, this ambitious objective seems detached from reality (3). The ‘new Riyadh’, which recently seems to have jettisoned adventurous regional policies and embraced a conciliatory, stabilizing approach, is certainly not ignorant of the dynamics enumerated above, which are at the root of current Abraham Accords signatories’ ‘wait and see’ attitude toward the Netanyahu coalition. Indeed, Riyadh seems unlikely to risk taking normalization steps only to witness irresponsible Israeli ministers and Knesset members ‘rewarding’ it with provocations in Jerusalem, thus exposing the kingdom to accusations that the Protector of Islam’s Two Holy Shrines forgot about the third.

All that notwithstanding, one might point out several changes in Riyadh’s attitude that are noteworthy. They represent both a greater interest in the Israeli-Palestinian arena as well as the kingdom’s limitations. Relevant players in the KSA seem more aware of the implications of instability in the Israeli-Palestinian arena for Saudi interests than before. Consequently, if in the past Riyadh was satisfied with generalities and was reluctant to bother with details, it now seems to have an interest in investing in a far more detailed understanding of realities and developments on the ground. However, the wish to better understand has yet to be translated into an appetite for getting involved. 

Whereas a different Israeli government might seize upon these tentative changes, encourage them, and seek to build upon them, given present realities in Jerusalem, it stands to reason that all one can hope for is that this Saudi ‘wait, study, and see’ attitude is not reversed.

  1. For a suggested alternative, see Amnon Reshef, Nimrod Novik, “An Alternative Strategy for Israel in Gaza,” The Jerusalem Post, December 13, 2018 https://www.jpost.com/opinion/an-alternative-strategy-for-israel-in-gaza-574319 
  2. From Autograph’s hit, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend Isn’t Me”
  3. See, for example, Nawaf Obaid, Nimrod Novik, “Israel and Saudi Normalization,” The Jerusalem Post, February 14, 2023. https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-731475.

From Tactical Solutions to Strategic Challenges: When Is the Next Round?

by Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha

Any assessment of the political and security dynamics in our region leads to one conclusion: the various parties have only short-term solutions to the myriad of strategic challenges. Over the past 14 years, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu deliberately employed all forms of tactical solutions to the most challenging political, security, and economic problems relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The most recent flare-up in Gaza vis-à-vis Islamic Jihad is a repetition of the same approach, reflecting lack of strategy in dealing with all issues related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A quick review of past confrontations indicates that with the end of every round, the countdown to the next one starts. The lack of an effective approach to the problems posed by the Gaza Strip reflects a more serious deficiency in developing a strategy to address the bigger context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole.  

The same tactical approach is also applied to the situation in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israeli approach to challenges there is also characterized by tactical calculations and short-term steps, while avoiding any serious endeavor to address root causes. Consequently, the end result is repeated rounds of flare-ups in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, and sometimes inside Israel-proper as well. This approach is applied to all political, security, and economic issues, and also to the most sensitive aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, e.g. the status quo on Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount.

Over the past few years, the convergence of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover raised concerns over spiking tensions. Those concerns indeed materialized at various levels with upticks in violence. While next year there will be no such convergence, that is unfortunately no reason to expect a violence-free environment. With or without the convergence of these holidays, tensions over Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount and Jerusalem in general are becoming a norm, while efforts by all relevant parties are exerted to minimize tensions rather than eliminate the root causes. 

Ahead of the month of Ramadan this year, two preemptive meetings involving the U.S., Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority were held. The concluding statements highlighted, among other things, that all sides agreed to preserve “the unchanged historical status quo” on the site and also noted that the parties acknowledged the “Hashemite custodianship/special role” over the holy sites. It is rather important to note that this statement fell short of addressing the root causes of friction and even failed to address the differences in interpretation of the status quo, which are causing the repeated tensions. Therefore, tensions on the site and beyond rose especially during the first two weeks of the holy month. The Israeli police used excessive force to evacuate activists and worshippers on April 5, which was followed by the firing of dozens of rockets from Gaza, with more coming from southern Lebanon and Syria. Those tensions were mitigated only as the Israeli government decided to refrain from harsh retaliations that would have otherwise ignited a much bigger, multi-front conflict. 

In addition, through effective local coordination, the Israeli police refrained from further eviction of worshipers and activists who sought to stay overnight (a Muslim practice known as itikaf) on the site during the last two weeks of the month. Consequently, no further tensions were reported despite the high number of worshippers and activists visiting the site and staying overnight for the remainder of the month. In addition, the Israeli police and the security establishment as a whole also recommended closing the Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount to Jewish and other non-Muslim visitors during the last ten days of Ramadan. Despite the earlier tensions, the month ended peacefully with no major friction.  But again, this was a tactical means to deal with a much larger and more profound problem. 

It appears that applying a ‘constructive ambiguity’ approach to understandings reached, rather than addressing root causes—as was the case regarding the Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh understandings—kept this powder keg high on the agenda of extremists on both sides. The Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh statements agreeing to preserve the ‘unchanged historical status quo’ juxtaposed two conflicting positions without addressing obvious contradictions. Those statements described the status quo on Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount as ‘unchanged,’ which conforms with the Israeli right-wing claim, while at the same time highlighting the adverse Arab position demanding the ‘historic status quo’ to be restored. The reality is that since 2003, the historic status quo has changed significantly. Jewish visitations are no longer coordinated with the Waqf and the prohibition on Jewish prayer is no longer enforced. The ‘constructive ambiguity’ wording of these statements swept under the carpet the conflicting positions of Israel, Jordan, and the PA. This approach all but guarantees the recurrence of future waves of violence. 

In addition to the security implications, moderate forces have been systematically undermined as a result of this shortsighted approach. This enabled radical organizations to agitate for violence, particularly among the youth, who joined the big crowds gathered in and around al-Aqsa during the holy month of Ramadan. Undermining the role of the Jordanian Waqf and the PA as forces of stability, moderation, and peace has proven, and will prove in the future, a prescription for trouble affecting all. 

On a more strategic level, Israel’s tactical approach for dealing with all these challenges not only fails to address root causes, but also undermines its partners for peace and security on the Palestinian side. Rounds of conflict and rising tensions boost radicals while undermining moderate forces. It is therefore imperative to replace such a short-sighted approach with engagement with real peace and security partners, while employing a strategic approach to common challenges. As reaching a two-state solution might not be achievable in the short term, a more profound and effective approach to addressing all those tensions in collaboration with the moderate Palestinian forces is warranted and long overdue.  

Now What? The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Is at an Impasse.An Arab “Can-Do” Approach Can Go a Long Way.

by Hesham Youssef

Since the efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to achieve peace ended unsuccessfully in 2014, the Israeli-Palestinian situation witnessed major developments, including a peace plan by President Donald Trump, the Abraham Accords, five Israeli elections, a canceled Palestinian election and countless failures to achieve intra-Palestinian reconciliation, numerous wars and military clashes, recurring tensions and confrontations in Jerusalem, and much more. In dealing with many of these developments, the question raised most frequently remained unchanged and unanswered: now what? 

Almost six months after the establishment of the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s 75-year history, and with the failure to avoid confrontations in Jerusalem and continued military confrontations with Gaza, this question gained additional urgency and a higher level of importance. 

The Challenges of Unanswered Questions

The reason the question of “now what” has yet to be answered stems from five fundamental unresolved issues:

1. Is the two-state solution dead, and have we crossed the tipping point of achieving that objective?

The answer from a significant and growing number of experts is yes— the tipping point has been crossed and the two-state solution is dead. Many of them have already started examining alternatives for the two-state solution, including the one-state option, varying ideas of confederation models, and more. The current Netanyahu government opposes the two-state solution and its program makes its position clear by arguing for a zero-sum end-game that ensures full Israeli control over the entire land. In its founding coalition agreement, it clearly stipulates that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel.”

Conversely, except for Israel, all the countries associated with the conflict, far and near, persistently and consistently support the two-state solution, although a number of them privately express doubt about its feasibility. There is also an agreement, except for Israel once again, that the status quo is unsustainable, but there is no agreement on what can be done to prevent the next crisis or how to deal with it except through the current firefighting approach that reduces the conflict’s repercussions but is gradually losing effectiveness. There is also no answer on how to achieve the two-state solution, how to agree on a political horizon, or how to exert pressure for or otherwise bring about the resumption of negotiations.  

2. If the two-state solution remains the north star, can it be preserved, or can settlement activity  and annexation (once creeping, now galloping) be reversed, or at least stopped?

When Israel decided to legalize nine outposts that had been illegally built in the occupied territories, in violation of Israeli law, and turn them into recognized settlements, it generated a rare joint statement of opposition from the U.S., Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. And when it approved plans and building permits for 10,000 new housing units—an unprecedented number to be approved at one time—the Palestinians decided to push for a U.N. Security Council resolution to confront this settlement expansion. The U.S. objected. The maximum that the Palestinians could achieve was a Security Council Presidential Statement expressing deep concern and dismay over Israel’s announcement of further construction and expansion of settlements, as well as the “legalization” of settlement outposts. 

It must be noted, however, that even when the Obama administration abstained and allowed the Security Council to adopt resolution 2334 in 2016, which demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard,” it did not translate into meaningful changes on the ground.

At the same time, Israeli policies that are in clear violation of international law continue unabated, including various types of collective punishment such as punitive home demolitions and sweeping movement restrictions in the wake of violence perpetrated by individuals. Ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have also expressed a desire to see the Land of Israel without “Arabs,” whom they believe should no longer be welcome as Israeli citizens.

In this environment, the international community continues to stress the need to preserve the two-state solution, yet it fails to take the necessary steps to achieve this objective, including confronting continued settlement expansion and annexation steps. 

3. Will the international community effectively address the situation in Jerusalem, especially surrounding al-Aqsa Mosque, which has been a source of recurring tensions amid the erosion of the status quo under successive Israeli governments? 

Al-Aqsa Mosque has been and remains an issue that can ignite violence in a blink of an eye. In light of provocations from extremist ministers in the current government, this is exactly what happened. Minister Ben Gvir leads a party whose platform calls for exclusive Israeli sovereignty over and ownership of the al-Aqsa compound. He argues that banning Jewish prayer there constitutes racism against Jews, contradicting the status quo understanding that was agreed upon by Israel.

The U.S. supported Egypt and Jordan in playing the role of “firefighters”—a role that had mixed results. These efforts mostly concerned the confluence of Ramadan and Passover in the past three years. However, no real effort has been undertaken to address the eroding status quo more broadly and other issues in East Jerusalem, including evictions of Palestinians, demolitions of Palestinian houses, and increasing attacks by Israeli extremists against Christians

4. How will the international community deal with the possible breakdown of the Palestinian Authority?

The Palestinian Authority has lost legitimacy among Palestinians and is losing control over parts of the West Bank. Hamas remains in control of Gaza, with no prospect of Fatah-Hamas reconciliation in sight. The quality of the PA’s state building efforts has varied tremendously since its emergence in the 1990s. A little over a decade ago, reports by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the U.N. stated that the PA had begun to build the core functions of a state and was ready for independence. However, the PA is currently at its lowest level of popularity since its establishment due to poor performance, corruption, authoritarianism, and inefficacy in its efforts to end the occupation. Indeed, the widespread perception among Palestinians is that the PA and its security forces are subcontractors of the Israeli occupation, enabling and facilitating Israel’s control over Palestinians. 

Today, the breakdown of the PA is no longer a theoretical possibility, but a real threat to stability in the occupied territories. The international community is not exerting enough effort to prevent this from happening and does not have a plan to address the repercussions if it does happen.

5. Will double standards continue to be the approach in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Double standards are not new in foreign policy. They have long been a part of the international political scene, and all nations are guilty of employing them depending on their interests. To the Palestinians, the manner in which the U.S. and the West have dealt with the war in Ukraine and how they celebrated Ukrainian resistance against Russia reflects a double standard in relation to their own cause and raises questions as to whether the U.S. and its allies can effectively play the role of a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian context. 

The level of support for Ukraine, which is enabling it to continue to confront Russia, is a clear reflection of how the mobilization of political will can be instrumental in determining the path of the war on the ground. 

It is not that the Palestinians are demanding or are expecting a similar level of support to that of Ukraine, but they are left dismayed at the huge discrepancy between the tepid international political will to address their aspiration for a state (a goal that remains consistent with U.S. policy) and the strong political will to support Ukrainians as their sovereignty and independence are threatened. The question then becomes whether it is even possible to foster greater international will in favor of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sadly, it seems that this is not, and it is not clear when the will to do so might emerge 

Is There a Way Out?

Peace efforts have been at an impasse many times before. At this moment, however, the challenge is different for multiple reasons. Israel has the most extreme government in its history, the PA is suffering from its worst legitimacy crisis since its establishment, the Arab and European countries are overwhelmed with numerous other pressing priorities, and the U.S. is both reducing its footprint in the region and unwilling to invest political capital in the conflict as it sees that the chances of success are low. Furthermore, the separation paradigm that governed the approach to resolving the conflict is falling apart as more people are questioning its viability and/or desirability, with polls of young people suggesting that majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians believe that violence is the best way to achieve concessions from the other side. 

At the same time, the U.S. and several Western countries continue to oppose nonviolent Palestinian efforts to put pressure on Israel in order to end the occupation, including appealing to the ICJ and the ICC. This recently recurred when the Palestinians resorted to the UNGA to request an advisory opinion from the ICJ on the legal consequences of Israel’s “occupation, settlement and annexation… including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character, and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures.” 

Such a moment requires the international community to act to mitigate the factors that are pushing the conflict in a dangerous and untenable direction. 

An Arab “Can-Do” Approach Can Go a Long Way

Despite their preoccupation with other priorities, Arab countries recognize the centrality of this conflict and that they are arguably the ones with the most at stake beyond the parties themselves. There are ongoing efforts by Saudi Arabia, the EU, and the Arab League to reinvigorate the Arab Peace Initiative. The Munich Group, consisting of Egypt, Jordan, Germany, and France, continues its efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, despite not being able to meet with the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers and the lack of progress in implementing the confidence-building measures that they had asked the parties to undertake. Another significant path that did not materialize is for the new normalizers to use their newly acquired leverage to advance the prospects for peace.

Arab countries should be prepared for heavy lifting. They need to adopt a two-track approach. The first would provide proposals to both sides for a gradual return to a political process within a specific timeframe. This track could include incentives for Israel as progress advances. The second would convey possible consequences that would raise the price of occupation and human rights violations if progress is not achieved, including how this would impact bilateral relations with Israel.  

Arab countries should not wait for more devastating crises and should send a message to the Israeli people that they understand their aspiration to maintain their Jewish character, but that Israelis should also understand that Palestinians will never surrender, forgo their national aspirations, or accept being second-class citizens in a one-state option. The Palestinians should also find a way to hold elections as a path towards reconciliation, achieve good governance, and end the current trend towards authoritarianism.   

If the current separation paradigm fails, this will not augur well for Israel’s goals of preserving its Jewish character and advancing its democratic values, nor for the Palestinians who yearn to achieve their national aspirations—let alone for the stability and prosperity of the region. The U.S. should recognize that firefighting is not an effective approach towards peace, and much more can be achieved without a substantial political investment.

The current impasse is probably one of the most challenging that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has endured for years. Millions have reached the point of despair and now is the time for action and for wise minds to choose a more promising path.

The Third Time Isn’t a Charm 

by Farah Bdour

The First Impulse

The first impulse in Amman towards Netanyahu’s sixth government reflected concerns that Israel-Jordan bilateral relations were approaching a new critical juncture, with direct consequential implications for Jordan’s national security. After five months in power, the initial assessment remains valid. The collision between Israel’s political and security echelons has disrupted the norms that had governed Israel-Jordan relations since they were established in 1994 and has produced trends within the Israeli security establishment that are likely to stay. This was evident in the aftermath of the Aqaba meeting aimed at preventing an escalation during Ramadan, where Jordan failed to read the extent to which internal dynamics first, impacted Israel’s ability to meet negotiated commitments, and second, narrowed agreements with Israel on certain policies to the merit of the issue at hand rather than considering them in the broader context of regional security, thus limiting Jordan’s leverage over Israeli policymaking. 

While a full-fledged escalation was avoided, the risk to Jordan’s national security remains imminent. Therefore, as Jordan may seek to reconsider its security assumptions, it should attempt to create as informed a picture of the current and emerging security environment as possible. This threat picture must factor in the new regional dynamics and assess the wide range of options that Jordan could exploit before jeopardizing the strategic peace with Israel. The smartest approach for Jordan is to continue its preventive diplomacy while simultaneously finding ways to transform its soft power into a magnetic force that draws regional players to its goals, including protecting Jordan from threats posed by Israel’s internal dynamics.

What Happened in Aqaba Stayed in Aqaba

The Aqaba meeting had two main objectives. The short-term one was to restore calm ahead of the holy month of Ramadan and prevent a rerun of the May 2021 scenario, when the 11 days of escalation threatened to sow chaos across the Middle East. The other, long-term objective was to build on de-escalation for progress toward preparing a climate conducive to resume peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis and achieve lasting peace based on a two-state solution. The avoidance of a full-fledged escalation in 2022 provided invaluable lessons to Amman, despite the mistakes that were made. 

In February 2023, Jordan successfully engineered a Palestinian-Israeli meeting after decades of suspended talks. The meeting took place under the auspices of the United States. Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf and National Security Council Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk participated in the meeting. Egypt, which coordinated closely with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi and head of intelligence Ahmad Husni, was represented by its head of intelligence, Abbas Kamel. The Palestinian delegation included Secretary of the Executive Committee of the PLO Hussein al-Sheikh, the head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service, Majed Faraj, and the diplomatic advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas, Majdi al-Khalidi. Israel’s National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar attended on the Israeli side.

During the meeting, both Palestinians and Israelis affirmed commitments to respect all previous agreements, including recognizing the importance of upholding the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem (in word and practice) and emphasizing the importance of the Hashemite custodianship in that regard. They also committed to end unilateral measures for a period of three to six months. This included an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop the legalization of any new outposts for six months.

Moreover, both affirmed the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence through several confidence-building measures. Further details and assessing progress were left to be discussed the following month in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh, including the establishment of a joint civilian committee that would work to promote economic confidence-building measures for the PA. On an operational level, there was an agreement on a number of measures, including the Israeli police refraining from entering Jerusalem’s al-Qibli (al-Aqsa) Mosque, preventing Jewish visitation on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in the last ten days of Ramadan, and that itikaf (Muslim overnight presence) would be limited to Fridays and Saturdays of the month, in addition to the last ten days of Ramadan.

To increase prospects for a successful meeting, Jordan had engaged all parties for months in an extensive diplomatic effort calling on the international community to share the burden in de-escalating tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. The Jordanian message focused on the threats to a rules-based world order and the need to protect al-Aqsa Mosque/Haram al-Sharif and support the Hashemite custodianship of the Jerusalem holy sites. The response of the international community to the Jordanian endeavor was expressed in four UNSC emergency sessions held over Jerusalem.

While the meeting was in the preparation phase, it already generated controversy. A number of Jordanian activists and parties condemned the Aqaba meeting, claiming that it would jeopardize Jordan’s national security for its engagement with an Israeli “fascist” government that is committed to undermining Jordan’s custodianship over Jerusalem holy sites. To participants’ dismay, within hours of releasing the meeting’s communiqué, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who had given his consent to the joint declaration) tweeted that “the building and authorization [of settlements in the West Bank] will continue according to the original planning and building schedule, with no change. There is not and will not be any freeze.” Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich echoed Netanyahu’s statement. Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir dismissed the importance of the meeting, saying that what happened in Jordan would stay in Jordan. Meanwhile, hundreds of Israeli settlers in the West Bank went on a rampage in Huwara, avenging the killing of two Israelis by a Palestinian gunman days after an Israeli raid in Nablus killed 11 Palestinians.

Despite domestic pressure, and despite contradictory and provocative statements by Israeli officials, Jordan remained committed to the outcome of Aqaba, betting on the reliability of the Israeli security establishment to influence the prime minister’s decision-making, at least when it comes to respecting the agreed de-escalation measures. On the first Friday of Ramadan, Israel lived up to expectations as 280,000 Palestinians visited al-Aqsa, a record number since 1986. However, the picture changed dramatically on the night of April 5, when the Israeli police blundered by storming al-Qibli Mosque.

The climate was already primed for confrontation. Jewish and Islamist extremists had been leading incitement campaigns in preparation for the holy month of Ramadan and Passover. The Temple Mount movements invited activists to sacrifice goats at the compound and distributed flyers around the Old City advertising their intentions in Arabic. Hamas also led a campaign under the title ”al-Aqsa is in danger,” calling upon all Palestinians to practice itikaf during the entire month of Ramadan, in contradiction to the Waqf’s decision to limit it to Fridays and Saturdays and the last ten days in Ramadan.

According to a statement by the Israeli police, it received a report that a number of Palestinians had barricaded themselves inside the mosque with the intention of attacking Jewish visitors the next morning. Accordingly, the police decided to storm al-Qibli. The situation quickly escalated, and it took no time until images of bound and tied Palestinians lying face down and then lined up went viral. These images were seen by millions of Muslims around the world, including in Amman, where the images were described as painful and humiliating. A number of protests took the streets throughout Jordan and a demonstration was held in front of the Israeli embassy compound in al-Rabeah calling on the authorities to expel the Israeli ambassador and annul the peace treaty. Jordan and the Waqf also came under a vicious campaign that accused them of being complicit in dividing the compound. The Waqf responded by accusing the Israeli police of violating what had been agreed upon, issuing a statement condemning the storming of the mosque and stating that itikaf would take place during the whole month of Ramadan. To make things worse, and in a dynamic similar to that of 2021, Hamas retaliated against the Israeli police storming al-Qibli by firing rockets from Gaza and, in a significant escalation, a barrage of nearly three dozen rockets from Lebanon and a few from Syria. These allowed Hamas to present itself (yet again) as a “shield and a sword” of al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian people, and for a third time in a row, Jordan’s diplomatic efforts had failed. 

We Are Here to “Administer, Not Liberate.”

Within this context, the level of frustration rose in Amman, as demonstrated by the frequency and tone of Jordanian officials’ comments on the issue. The Jordanian Foreign Ministry issued 11 statements and tweets condemning and criticizing Israel’s policy of violating the sanctity of the holy site. In coordination with Egypt and the PA, Jordan initiated an emergency meeting of the Arab League and of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It also pushed for a U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in Jerusalem in coordination with the UAE. During a CNN interview, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi stated that Israel didn’t respect what it had agreed upon in Aqaba and said that its practices were pushing everyone to the abyss of violence, making it difficult for the Jordanians to continue to engage with Israel. He also accused Israel of undermining the peace treaty with Jordan and with other Arab countries and putting the implementation of regional integration plans at risk.

In an Al Jazeera interview, Safadi also expressed deep frustration with those who criticized Jordan’s endeavors, stating that Jordan alone can’t end the occupation and clarifying that the Waqf’s role in al-Aqsa is to “administer, not to liberate.” He stressed that Jordan has always acted within the Arab consensus, and when that consensus opted for war, Jordan fought and sacrificed martyrs, while when it opted for negotiations, the country signed peace with the Palestinians’ interest in mind. Safadi later called for skeptics to envision the alternative in the absence of the Jordanian custodianship. It was also reported that Safadi refused to receive Israeli messages delivered by the U.S. and the UAE, claiming Israel was lying about what was happening at the mosque and stressing that Israel should commit to stop its violations of the status quo at the compound.

Following these frictions, the Israeli police refrained from raiding the mosque and prevented non-Muslim visitors from entering the compound during the last nine days of Ramadan, sealing a calm conclusion to this highly tense episode, and resulting in more than a quarter of a million Muslim celebrating Laylat al-Qadr without any serious incident.

It’s Not Over Yet

On May 2, the Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan died in an Israeli prison after nearly three months on a hunger strike. Adnan, who was protesting his six-year detention in Israeli custody without trial, had become over the years a symbol of steadfastness in the face of Israel’s occupation. Palestinian Islamic Jihad avenged the death of Adnan with a barrage of rocket fire launched at Israel, to which the IDF responded with an assassination campaign against the group in Gaza, Operation Shield and Arrow. During the five days of the operation beginning on May 9, 33 Palestinians were killed, including six PIJ leaders, and in a similar pattern to 2021, at least six children were killed. On the Israeli side, one Israeli was killed, as was one Palestinian laborer from Gaza who was inside Israel.

The security operation concluded with a ceasefire mediated by Egypt. The Egyptian officials worked under pressure to avoid a scenario in which the fighting would continue until the Jerusalem Day flag march scheduled for May 18. The Egyptians feared that it would be much harder to stop the escalation and it would be likely that “Hamas will ride this wave and join as well.” In 2021, amid weeks of unrest in Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s government changed the route of the flag march at the last minute to avoid the Muslim Quarter, but it was too late to prevent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians at Haram al-Sharif. The violence at the site led Hamas to fire a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem, sparking May’s 2021 war. In 2022, under the Bennett-Lapid government, thousands of Israeli religious nationalists paraded through Muslim parts of the Old City of Jerusalem. The provocative march sparked violence, but mostly without major incidents largely thanks to the adoption of a number of measures that averted escalation. This year, Netanyahu instructed that the Jerusalem Day flag march proceed as planned—that is, along its traditional route through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. On May 21, thousands of Israeli nationalists paraded through the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City in a show of force, among them was Itamar Ben Gvir. Jordan condemned Ben Gvir’s storming of al-Aqsa Mosque and warned that the provocative and escalating march could make things deteriorate further.

Although the conclusion of these events (Ramadan and Passover, the recent ceasefire agreement between Israel and Palestinian armed groups, flag march)  have created a perception that a wider military confrontation has been averted, the climate is still charged for ignition. We can count on the complex nature of this conflict reconstructing old and new dynamics that will continue to converge into a point of fatigue and further escalation without increasing any group’s security. It’s hard, for example, to imagine how the ongoing Israeli operation in Nablus (launched earlier this month to avenge the Dee family murders) will not accelerate violence, or how the killing of two Palestinians from Balata refugee camp, who according to the Israeli military were not the wanted suspects that the troops had sought to arrest, will not spark vengeance against Israel. There is also the Armenian scandal, which prompted Jordan and Palestine to announce their decision to suspend their recognition of Patriarch Manougian, and the rise of targeted attacks against Palestinian Christians will likely add another layer of complexity to the conflict. The hard question from a Jordanian point of view becomes then how to mitigate the escalatory trends driven by Netanyahu’s coalition calculations and insulate Jordan’s security from its consequences. 

Lesson Learned: Leverage the Arabic Depth 

Although a full-fledged escalation was avoided, the dynamics of April 5 demonstrated a trend in Jordan-Israel relations that will likely continue to threaten Jordan’s national security. Jordan must revisit its security assumptions about the reliability of Israel as a strategic security partner on the issues that matter to Jordan the most, like Jerusalem and annexation. Jordan must understand that Israeli internal dynamics will limit agreement with Jordan to specific issues at hand, as opposed to broader strategic cooperation on regional security based on a range of shared concerns. Consequently, this will limit Jordan’s leverage over Israeli policy making. To mitigate the risk of this trend, Jordan must assess global and regional dynamics and seek to exploit opportunities to consolidate its interests. 

The geopolitical competition between the great powers, which is taking place during a “decisive decade,” has created dynamics that are already felt in the region. First, an American openness for its allies and partners to take on more of the heavy lifting and share the security burden of challenges that the United States cannot ignore or handle on its own. However, as U.S. allies and partners are wary of hitching themselves too closely to Washington in areas that would not serve their national interest or their perception of threat (like OPEC +), the U.S. appears intent on mitigating the risks of dealignment by accepting the choice of its partners to not take sides as long as the international order is preserved. 

The second dynamic is the desire by regional players to de-escalate tensions and focus inward by pursuing local solutions to local problems, whether in the form of regional economic and trading arrangements or in locally negotiated solutions to political disputes. The Saudi–Iranian rapprochement is a recent example; Saudi Arabia, which seems to adopt a zero-problems policy to achieve its ambitious economic reforms and social programs, and Iran, which wants to escape its economic stagnation and diversify its options in the absence of the JCPOA, are pursuing bilateral relations. Though it’s too early to predict whether the rapprochement between the two regional powers will hold once put into test, it reflects the favorable strategic direction of these players, at least in the short term

These dynamics have opened the door for a proactive regional and international engagement that is being translated into the creation/reactivation of a number of platforms that aspire to achieve security and stability in the region. The trilateral meeting that brought the EU, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League together agreed to create a working group that will develop proposals to coordinate efforts to encourage the parties to demonstrate—through policies and actions—their commitment to a two-state solution. There were also reports about the Munich Quartet’s interest in supporting the Aqaba meeting and taking measures that would create a realistic horizon for the resumption of a credible political process and the attainment of a just and lasting peace.

Within this context, Jordan must flex its diplomatic muscle to the fullest and benefit from the new vibe in the region. Jordan must start by analyzing the existing platforms like those mentioned above, in addition to others like the Negev Forum and I2U2, with the purpose of identifying which could be most effectively leveraged to de-escalate tensions for the short term and improve prospects for creating a political horizon, expand economic integration, and deepen security cooperation for the longer term. In practical terms, the Aqaba meeting should be a constant address that could be linked to any platform. The Aqaba meeting already succeeded in laying a realistic roadmap towards de-escalation and the resumption of a credible political horizon. To eliminate unnecessary duplication within regional and international efforts, partners should build on what has been achieved in Aqaba, adding the missing regional and international political capital to pressure and incentivize both sides to commit to de-escalation. However, Jordan must recognize the Saudis’ weight as the region’s center of gravity. The Saudis (in their capacity at the various platforms) could participate at the next Aqaba/Sharm meeting and contribute to the economic confidence-building measures that may eventually serve their new rail project on the one hand and offer Israelis with a potent incentive on the other. 

Indeed, at a time when the composition, statements, policies, and initiatives of the Israeli government seem to have triggered unprecedented internal opposition and soul-searching, a declared Saudi intention to host the next meeting on their soil once Israel is prepared to commit to the Arab Peace Initiative (API) might provide the Israeli public and political elites with some serious challenges to contemplate.

Given its credibility, history, and strategic location, when Israelis finally make up their mind and choose to join the regional de-escalation club, Jordan will be there to both steer its bilateral relations with Israel away from conflict minefields and to facilitate such a new chapter in regional realignment.

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The opinions and proposals expressed in these pieces are only reflective of the respective authors’ opinions and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of Israel Policy Forum.

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Leveraging the Abraham Accords for Progress on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

October 2022

Two years into the normalization process known as the Abraham Accords, this new feature of Arab-Israeli affairs seems to have evolved in several unforeseen ways. While some of these developments pleasantly surprised the Accords sponsors and signatories, others were disappointing. These surprises include:

  • Normalization has progressed at a faster pace than expected.
  • The anticipated expansion of the Accords by additional countries signing on has not materialized.
  • Declarations of the death of the Arab Peace Initiative (API) have proven premature.
  • The initial expectation that normalization could be insulated from the effects of developments in the Israeli-Palestinian arena has been challenged.

This memo seeks to shed light on the bottom line:
Given that the initial perception of the Accords as bypassing the Israeli-Palestinian issue has given way to efforts by many (including signatories and other parties) to leverage the Accords in seeking progress on the issue, what should and can be done to make that happen?

Below please find our four individual perspectives on these questions.

The opinions and proposals expressed in these pieces are only reflective of the respective authors’ opinions and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of Israel Policy Forum.

Bad News at the Root of Potential Good News

by Nimrod Novik

In setting the stage for a concrete suggestion for leveraging the Abraham Accords to stabilize the Israeli-Palestinian arena and salvage hope for a future peace process, it is important to consider three relevant contexts: Israeli, Palestinian, and regional.

Israel: Warnings Ignored

In recent weeks, security correspondents have reported on the Israeli government’s belated awakening to the explosive situation in the West Bank. Though some placed the blame exclusively on the Palestinian Authority, most spared no criticism of Israel’s decade-long policy of strengthening Hamas in Gaza while weakening the PA in the West Bank. Worse yet, even at this critical juncture, senior security officials censor subordinates’ recommendations so as not to present members of the cabinet with information they prefer not to hear. 

The reality of an over three-year endless election eve seems to be at play here. On the one hand, cabinet members realize the need for a swift and meaningful change of course to restore stability by strengthening the PA and restoring some of its legitimacy, thereby bolstering the legitimacy and durability of its security coordination with Israel. On the other hand, they are deterred from doing so lest the leader of the opposition, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, manipulate such efforts for his election needs by presenting them as surrendering to terror. Thus, hope that no major catastrophe occurs prior to the November 1 election substitutes for taking action.

Palestinians: An Urgent Need for Legitimacy

Israeli reports of over a dozen incidents where Palestinian security officers turned their weapons against IDF units remind me of the words of a Palestinian security chief who, well over two years ago, shared his “worst nightmare” with a visiting Israel Policy Forum leadership delegation. His message was that in the absence of a political horizon, his troops were perceived by family, friends, and others, as “subcontractors of the Israeli occupation, if not traitors,” and “the moment would come when they yield to peer pressure and seek rehabilitation by turning their weapons on Israelis.”

Palestinian Authority Security Forces

The lack of national elections for well over a decade and a half and other un-democratic practices, the widespread perception of PA corruption and poor governance, and the failure to demonstrate that the PA is the vehicle driving Palestinians to statehood and independence all have contributed to the Palestinian public wishing to see its government and leadership gone. Arab-Israeli normalization (both the Abraham Accords and subtle, yet significant steps taken by other states) amid continued Israeli settlement expansion and routine IDF operations throughout the West Bank is seen as a betrayal of their cause, further aggravating public despair. 

Cognizant of the explosiveness of these trends, yet true to his commitment of non-violent resistance, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), has sought to regain some credibility by getting the attention of the international community. However, even there his efforts have been met with potent pushback. For example, in recent meetings with senior American diplomats, Palestinian leaders expressed dismay at the U.S. objection to their effort to upgrade Palestine’s standing at the U.N. Their message was, roughly, “if we are unable to deliver some hope to our people via non-violent means, what alternative are you suggesting?”

Mahmoud Abbas in Davos in 2007 by the World Economic Forum, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)

The Region: Reality Hits Home

As we mark the second anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords and all eyes are on the exciting people-to-people, government-to-government, business, academic, scientific, and (albeit discreet) security cooperation it unleashed, few, including Israel, have paid notice to the challenges posed by the Accords.   

A rare exception was the notes of caution expressed by the thoughtful Yousef al-Otaiba, the able UAE ambassador to the U.S. The diplomat, whose groundbreaking opinion piece in an Israeli Hebrew newspaper over two years ago presented Israelis with a choice between West Bank annexation and regional normalization, was again the first to challenge the conventional wisdom that normalization was immune to Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Speaking at the Atlantic Council on September 8, he—unprompted—repeatedly brought up the need for progress on the two-state solution, including when asked to enumerate the challenges to the normalization process. A few days later, while visiting Jerusalem, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan also expressed his country’s wish to see progress toward an eventual two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Out of context, these statements might be taken for lip service. In context, they probably were not. The first major challenge to the initial conventional wisdom that normalization could be decoupled from Israeli-Palestinian violence came during the May 2021 11-day Gaza war. Then, senior officials from Accords signatories communicated their concerns to their U.S. and Israeli counterparts. Specifically, while acknowledging Israel’s right of self-defense, they urged Defense Minister Benny Gantz to factor the effect of the war and its broadcasted images on their ability to proceed with normalization as planned and to protect what had already been accomplished. 

That message has since been repeatedly conveyed to Israeli leaders, including to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid by his regional counterparts during the first Negev Summit in March 2022, to then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett when visiting Bahrain in February 2022. In the wake of the April 2022 Jerusalem violence, the UAE went even further, leveraging its U.N. Security Council seat in order to convene a special session on the subject. 

What to Do: The Arab Peace Initiative Is Key

Whether it is eager to join or not, the PA’s exclusion from the Negev Forum, an official framework for regional cooperation created with the March 2022 summit of Accords signatories, Egypt, and the U.S., accentuates its isolation and helplessness. Likewise, Jordan’s participation is essential but seems to be conditioned on PA participation. Should the two be included going forward, they stand to benefit both separately and jointly, as do prospects for regional stability. Indeed, their inclusion can gradually help both reduce tensions (e.g. between the UAE and the PA) and enlist Negev Forum participants to support an Israeli-Palestinian process, however tentative. Still, for both to engage, a potent incentive and political cover are required.

Even in the wake of the Abraham Accords, Arab states—signatories included—have continued to express adherence to the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative (API). This was certainly the case when, on September 20 during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Saudi Arabia convened representatives of 25 countries and multilateral organizations (including the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the U.N., and the EU) for a meeting designed to “relaunch the Arab Peace Initiative”.

Creating a platform for Negev Forum deliberations on the API that acknowledges the initiative’s significance would serve several objectives:

  • Reviving the political horizon for two states, which is an urgent prerequisite for stabilizing the PA by restoring some of its credibility and legitimacy.
  • Persuading both the PA and Jordan to join the Negev Forum. 
  • Encouraging the Negev Forum’s Arab members to engage in the Israeli-Palestinian process. 
  • Incentivizing other Arab states either to normalize ties with Israel or (as might be the case with the more cautious Saudi Arabia) to structure other pathways for normalization.

It is therefore proposed to explore the idea of creating a platform for amicable discussion of the API within the Negev Forum. Specifically:

  • The Negev Forum could serve as a channel for Israel to engage with Arab participants (and non-participants, possibly including Saudi nationals) on the subject of the API. This would allow Israel to seek clarifications on specific aspects of the API and discuss its reservations.
  • With time, relevant scholars, including from non-Abraham Accords signatories (e.g. Saudi Arabia), may also accept invitations to engage in such discussions.
  • This process could enable all involved, including Israel, to express support for the API in individual and joint statements.
  • Ultimately, this dialogue could yield a dedicated API working group, whose mission would be to discuss how to operationalize the API and turn its vision into an action plan.

The Elephant in the Room: Israeli Elections

In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on September 22, Prime Minister Yair Lapid made formal his support for the two-state solution. In addition, he has long emphasized the strategic importance of peace with Jordan and prioritized expanding the circle of Arab-Israeli normalization. With that in mind, he can be expected to be open to having the Negev Forum engage in API deliberations as suggested above. As the ‘father’ of the Negev Summit, he has already provided concrete evidence of his wish to see the Israeli-Palestinian issue included on its agenda when (still as a minister under Prime Minister Bennett) he had that notion incorporated into the concluding statement of the Negev steering committee meeting on June 27 in Bahrain.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 22, 2022

Bringing the API into the Negev Forum might still be viable should the Israeli elections yield no option for coalition formation, thus providing Lapid with another term as caretaker prime minister. However, should a hard-right coalition be formed, the idea will inevitably be shelved, with the hope that this right-wing government’s conduct does not render it irrelevant even beyond its tenure.

What’s in It for Us?

by Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha

When the Abraham Accords were first announced over two years ago, the Palestinian leadership strongly opposed them, describing them as a “stab in the back.” Subsequently, the PA failed to obtain a condemnation of the Accords from the Arab League, key players like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, or any other Arab state. With time, the Palestinian reaction became more muted, perhaps out of helplessness and a growing sense of marginalization. Indeed, a few months after the Accords were signed, the Palestinian leadership corrected its course of action and recommissioned the Palestinian ambassadors to Abu Dhabi and later to Manama. In addition, the PA was subsequently more careful and did not dismiss or comment publicly on the announcement of subsequent normalization agreements, including with Morocco and Sudan. Senior PA officials continued to criticize the Abraham Accords, privately warning that the Accords would totally undermine the Arab Peace Initiative, which called on Israel to end its occupation of territories it conquered from Arab states and resolve other issues, including the refugees, in exchange for normalized relations between Arab countries and Israel. According to this view, the Palestinian opposition to the Abraham Accords thus did not stem from ideological opposition to normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab countries, but mainly because the Accords wasted this leverage over Israel, a strategic political asset for the Palestinians. Furthermore, the official PA narrative points out that the signing of the Abraham Accords came without any serious consultations with the Palestinian leadership and against the backdrop of a Palestinian diplomatic boycott of the U.S. and poor relations between the UAE and the Palestinians. It is needless to say that the Palestinians also saw the Abraham Accords as a means of pressuring them to change their position toward the Trump Peace to Prosperity plan, which they had unequivocally rejected.

Then-President Donald Trump and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of Trump’s Peace to Prosperity plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, January 28, 2020

The Palestinian position on the Accords did not change, but they adapted their strategy by modifying their  approach to rejecting them and changing their attitude towards the Arab countries who were involved in the Accords. The Palestinians believe that Saudi Arabia supported the Accords, despite not being a signatory or taking meaningful steps on its own toward normalization. Given that Saudi Arabia did not sign a similar agreement and remained committed to the Arab Peace Initiative, the Palestinians maintained their position calling for implementing the API and distancing themselves from the Abraham Accords and all relevant platforms, including the Negev Forum. In light of all these dynamics, the key question is what would prompt the PA to engage in a regional cooperation platform like the Negev Forum, and what could Israel and its regional partners do in order to make regional cooperation irresistible for the PA. 

In a careful review of the PA’s various interests, the answer to this hypothetical question appears simple at first glance but political complications emerge when it is examined thoroughly. It is fair to assume that the PA’s main interest is to engage in a process that has a political framework to move regional political dynamics closer to the API’s stipulations to highlight the principle of two states in the normalization process, which thus far has largely avoided the Israeli Palestinian conflict. In addition, the financially challenged PA would have to pursue its economic interests strategically in order to boost its stature domestically and regionally. Small-scale projects or riding the coattails other players’ major projects are not sufficient to change course. It is noteworthy that Jordanian and Egyptian officials recently discussed separately with senior PA officials the prospects of PA engagement in regional cooperation activities such as the Negev Forum. According to senior PA officials, such engagement would only come about if a political platform advancing the two-state solution is secured, and if Palestinians stood to benefit through large-scale economic projects. In addition, those interested in Palestinian engagement in such a platform should take into account the need to address the strained relations between the Palestinian leadership, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Then-Secretary of State John Kerry, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Sharm el-Sheikh, March 2015

It is clear that the outcome of the upcoming Israeli elections will determine whether such Palestinian conditions could plausibly be met. Assuming they could, the following proposed political and economic frameworks could attract Palestinians to engage actively:

The Palestinians would have a hard time opposing any regional forum that declares a commitment to pursuing a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of the API. Short of a clear-cut reference to the API, the Palestinians would probably endorse an invite to join a regional forum that seeks a ‘peaceful resolution to the conflict on the basis of a two-state solution on the 1967 lines with mutual and agreed-upon land swaps.’ It is also important to offer the PA certain practical incentives. These could include (under a centrist Israeli government) a mutual cessation of all unilateral actions. Such a scenario envisions Israel committing to start talks while both sides stop unilateral actions throughout the talks’ duration. This process would also see the gradual implementation of meaningful steps to meet other PA demands, such as transferring control of certain parts of Areas B and C to full PA control and actively working to de-escalate the situation on Haram al-Sharif by affirming and maintaining the status quo that existed before the year 2000. This means allowing the Waqf to take control of coordinating the visits of non-Muslims with the Israeli police. In addition, the Palestinians could take steps in response to a series of demands that Israel and other players have persistently been pushing in the past few years. This includes improving security performance and tightening security coordination, reviewing laws related to prisoner payments, and freezing all actions at international courts and organizations.

The Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem

On a parallel track, it is important to create an economic incentive for the PA that can’t be rejected. A longstanding Palestinian demand has been to allow the building of luxurious hotels on the West Bank beachside of the Dead Sea. This large-scale tourism project was discussed with the Benjamin Netanyahu government in the past, but was turned down outright. Other feasible projects could include creating a new airstrip in the Jordan Valley that Palestinians could use to travel abroad.  While much would be left for discussion in the regional forum and its subcommittees, the PA would want to benefit from free trade agreements in the region and beyond.  

In conclusion, it is not impossible to bring the Palestinians into a regional cooperation forum, provided the right political terms are set and large-scale economic interests are met. The question remains, however, whether there will be enough political momentum in Israel and whether the U.S. will push such an agenda forward. Otherwise, the regional cooperation forum will mostly likely take normalizing Arab countries and Israel to new horizons away from the increasingly unstable Palestinian Authority. Even so, they will inevitably always have to face the ebbs and flows of Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

 

Kosherize the Accords

by Farah Bdour

When the Abraham Accords were first announced in 2020, Jordanians viewed it with deep concern, since normalizing relations with Israel was no longer preconditioned on achieving progress on the Palestinian track as embodied by the API. Jordanian concerns stemmed from a conviction that the Palestinian issue could not be decentralized from the Middle East turbulence, nor decoupled from internal dynamics. Jordan’s foreign minister explicitly articulated his country’s position toward the accords by saying, “If Israel sees the agreement as an incentive for the end of the occupation and the return of the Palestinian people’s right to freedom and to establish their independent state on the 1967 borders with Eastern Jerusalem as its capital, the region will move towards a just peace. However, if Israel does not do this, the conflict will deepen and threaten the whole region.”

On and off the record, Jordanian security experts have shared that the persistence of occupation legitimizes and bolsters support for terrorist groups in local communities around the world, consequently jeopardizing counterterrorism intelligence crucial for penetrating these groups and halting attacks against Jordan and its allies. They have also pointed out that the Palestinian issue has been weaved into the terrorists’ narrative targeting the young and frustrated. Throughout the years, Jordan has witnessed a number of painful attacks in Amman, Karak, Fuhais, Rukban, and Ein al-Basha, where Palestine was part of the recruitment appeal. With the announcement of the Abraham Accords, these experts have expressed fear that terrorist groups would leverage grassroots resentment of the accords to expand recruitment and establish a foothold in critical locations. The recent attacks in the Nagab (Negev) and Hadera by ISIS affiliates are viewed through that lens. Adding ISIS to Jordan’s western borders is a scenario that will put great pressure on the Jordanian security forces, who are already dealing with attacks by militias linked to Iran on the northern front. The scenario could be exacerbated by reviving a Sunni-Shi’a axis between these terrorist groups. This dark scenario has propelled many experts to reevaluate Jordan’s engagement policy with the dominant Palestinian party on the ground.

A meeting of U.S. and Jordanian military officials in Aqaba, October 2014 by U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)

There were also concerns that the sole mission of the Abraham Accords was to forge a new anti-Iran alliance. Reorganizing Israel within the area of responsibility of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) alongside the other Middle Eastern nations reinforced this notion. With this move, Jordan feared that the region would witness more polarization and be plunged into militarized competition, where Iran would likely be pushed to adopt even more aggressive policies using its regional proxies. In such a scenario, the coordination and cooperation between Israel and Arab states would rise to a whole different level, stripping Jordan of its Arab strategic depth and providing Israel with the opportunity to liquidate two final status issues: borders, by annexing Palestinian territories that would kill the two-state solution threatening to transform Jordan into an alternative homeland for the Palestinians; and Jerusalem, by marginalizing the Hashemite custodianship, a role that has been contested by Saudi Arabia. 

On the other hand, the growing perception that Arab states have bypassed the Palestinian issue has validated the Israel boycott movement’s rhetoric that Israel is being rewarded for violating human rights in the occupied territories. As a result, public opinion grew more hostile to Israel and is incapable of making a distinction between strategic economic projects that aim to promote favorable conditions for confidence-building between Palestinians and Israelis, and other projects that operate in isolation from the Palestinian issue. The inability to make such a distinction has lumped Jordan under the second category and deprived it of the opportunity to harness powerful tools that strengthen Palestinian state-building and create an environment conducive to resuming peace talks. When the Negev Summit was held with the participation of UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco, King Abdullah sent a loud and clear message while visiting Ramallah that the Palestinian issue won’t be bypassed. In countries like Jordan, where public opinion matters, this message was extremely important.

King Abdullah II of Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, March 2013 by Addustour, Jordan Press & Publication Co / Khalil Mazraawi, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

Now, two years after the Accords, a number of significant developments have provided a clearer picture for Jordan to navigate its concerns and modify its policy toward the Abraham Accords. First, even if the motives behind signing the Abraham Accords were not centered around Palestinian aspirations, there are limits to how far Arab states are willing or able to ignore it, as there is a certain level of commitment to the Palestinian issue they are not prepared to forsake, regardless of who is leading the government on the Israeli side. When the Arab League rejected the Palestinian demand that they condemn the Israel-UAE deal, and later a number of Arab countries followed the UAE’s lead with the Saudi ‘big brother’ implicitly endorsing it and opening its airspace for Israeli airlines, the Arabs were sending a message that they too have pressing national interests that need to be addressed. Nevertheless, when Israel announced its plan to annex the Jordan Valley in 2020 and violence erupted in Jerusalem in May 2021, the UAE threatened Israel with “it’s either annexation or normalization” and voiced a sharp objection toward Israel’s conduct. During the recent Jeddah summit, Arab leaders reaffirmed their support for the Palestinian people and the two-state solution, and during the Negev Forum’s meeting in Manama, they affirmed that the relations between signatories “can be harnessed to create momentum in Israeli-Palestinian relations, towards a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as part of efforts to achieve a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace.” Even with less substantial matters, Morocco had major role in negotiating the 24/7 opening of the Allenby Bridge during the recent crisis at the border crossing, to ease the movement of Palestinian travelers. 

Second, the Accords are no longer exclusively conceived as an anti-Iran alliance. Each of the Arab states that attended the Negev summit had a different priority. At the Negev Forum in Bahrain, these priorities were reflected in the formation of working groups that deal with six main issues: clean energy, education and coexistence, food and water security, health, regional security, and tourism. The Iranian issue was not discussed during the forum. Moreover, when looking into details, the signatories of the Accords differ in their approach towards Iran. After Biden’s Middle East tour resulted in the signing of a security agreement between the U.S. and Israel in which the U.S. committed to the use of force as a “last resort,” Abu Dhabi responded by saying that the UAE will not be part of any group that sees confrontation as a direction, although the UAE does see serious problems with Iran and its regional policy that they hope to resolve through diplomacy. The UAE’s strategic shift towards Iran reflects that the UAE is adopting a de-escalation policy that is “wise and necessary,” which Jordan sees as a favorable strategy for approaching conflicts in the Middle East. In his interview with CNBC, King Abdullah alluded to the potential of regional projects to change the behavior of players like Iran and the possibility of creating incentives to reap benefits from regional cooperation. He also referred to a new vibe in the region of regional partners coming to the realization that helping each other is necessary to address the region’s complex challenges.

The Negev Summit, March 2022

Within this context, Jordan’s position toward the Accords must take a new outlook. Rather than viewing the Accords as a concern, they should be seen as an opportunity. However, there is nothing that characterizes the Middle East more than being the region where all opportunities wither. The main challenge Jordan will face is the fact that there is no cohesive strategy on a regional (nor international) level to end the occupation and establish the Palestinian state on the 1967 lines. There are also no political conditions imposed on Israel or the Palestinians to comply with the two-state vision. Given the lack of a coherent strategy and the absence of political conditioning, it’s difficult to answer the following questions: How will the Abraham Accords be leveraged for progress on the IsraeliPalestinian conflict? How will the Abraham Accords be used to build confidence across the region with the purpose of accelerating the ripening of an environment conducive to resume peace talks? 

Ideally, the formation of a regional security architecture to create a coherent strategy to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in addition to addressing the region’s pressing security needs would be the right path forward. In Article 4 of their 1994 peace treaty, both Jordan and Israel committed to the creation of a “Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East” along the lines of the Helsinki process. In October 2021, the Economic Cooperation Foundation and the Amman Center for Peace and Development produced a detailed study advocating for the creation of a modified model based on the OSCE that comprises three baskets: political/security, environmental/economic, and human rights. However, since domestic political and economic priorities tend to overrule countries’ commitments to regional structuring, the second-best option is to leverage the Abraham Accords and other existing political and economic mechanisms to develop a realistic roadmap linked to political deliverables that prioritizes the incremental reversal of realities on the ground. The objectives of this road map would be to revive a political horizon, build trust, shift people’s perception, and gradually accelerate the ripening of an environment conducive to resume peace talks. 

The practical manifestation would be adding an API working group to the six working groups formed already, with the goal of kosherizing the Accords and giving signatories a platform to act on their commitment to the spirit of the API. Forming this group would also provide an incentive and political cover for both Jordan and Palestine to join, who could serve as chairs for this working group. Once the incentive  has been provided, Jordan could play a vital role in developing a common understanding on the scope of ignoring or decentralizing the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the region’s security outlook, building consensus around a realistic regional roadmap to reverse facts on the ground, and working on “mainstreaming” the Palestinian issue across the six working groups. Jordan can start by mapping all existing political and economic mechanisms, in order to assess their potential to contribute to achieving the political deliverables and to determine the timeline for doing so. 

Then-Secretary of State John Kerry meets with the Ministerial Delegation of the Arab Peace Initiative in Paris, September 2013

For working groups that deal with clean energy, food and water security, health, and tourism, political deliverables could take the form of constructing regional research centers in Area C of the West Bank, building economic corridors to remove physical barriers to create Palestinian territorial continuity and facilitate Palestinian regional integration. It also could mean opening the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, Arab trade offices in East Jerusalem, or creating a regional fund to facilitate the relocation of settlers. When it comes to tourism, ethics-centered, youth-targeted  planning should be at the forefront of initiatives in this sector, such as facilitating narrative-based and pro-justice tourism in the occupied territories and around the region where Jews were uprooted. In the field of education and coexistence (a term that should be replaced by co-living, co-resistance, shared reality, or shared future), there is a crucial need to form a regional educational body that opens dialogue between educational actors, NGOs, companies, and innovators across the Middle East to promote inclusive education and opportunities prioritizing Palestinian children in Israeli detention. 

Jordan’s presence in the various regional mechanisms like the Arab Quartet, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, Munich Quartet, the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC),and  Union of the Mediterranean makes it a natural candidate to enrich the proposed API working group and ensure its impact. Moreover, Jordan’s membership in various bilateral and trilateral economic cooperation mechanisms puts it in a good position to use regional resilient packs to increase Palestinians’ trade integration and connectivity and enhance their economic reality. The fact that the Palestinians will be part of a web of economic mechanisms means that they will diversify their dependence and partially address the power asymmetry with Israel, allowing them to navigate likely political upheavals and changes in Israeli government. On the other hand, the recent relaunching of the API and the seven-year MoU signed between Jordan and the United States with more than $1.45 billion in annual aid offer a good opportunity to act upon a regional roadmap that would gradually accelerate the ripening of an environment conducive to resuming peace talks.

The Necessary Steps to Leverage Normalization Agreements to Advance Israeli-Palestinian Peace

by Hesham Youssef

One of the main questions that were asked when the Abraham Accords and other normalization agreements were reached two years ago—a question still being asked today—is whether these new relations would constitute a bridge to advance prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace or a bypass around a political resolution of this conflict. So far, they have been a bypass, but efforts are ongoing to transform them into a bridge.

The UAE has repeatedly indicated that its normalization with Israel saved the two-state solution, as it was predicated on Israel suspending annexation plans. While it is questionable if annexation would have happened anyway (opposition to the move was considerable on both the far right and the left in Israel), former President Trump set the issue to rest; when Israel and the UAE agreed to ties, he declared that annexation was off the table for now. It is meaningful that the UAE linked normalization to the conflict. This was not the case with Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

What are the obstacles to leveraging the normalization agreements to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace? 

There are five main challenges facing the effort to leverage the normalization agreements to advance peace.

First, on the Israeli side, the difficulty is that Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel when the Abraham Accords were announced, repeatedly argued that the Accords represented “peace for peace” and that Israel did not make any concessions. This is not entirely true. As mentioned, annexation was suspended, and a huge portion of the price was paid by the U.S.  The UAE linked normalization to suspending annexation, but it also received several promises pertaining to bilateral relations with the U.S. The UAE felt that this was an important insurance policy to advance its strategic relations with the U.S., regardless of the outcome of the 2020 U.S. elections; its assessment proved correct. Aside from Bahrain, which did not have any demands, this dynamic also applied to the other normalization agreements. Morocco resumed ties with Israel in return for having the U.S. recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, and Sudan announced its intention to normalize with Israel in return for being removed from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Ultimately, there was little political will to link normalization to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace, and the framing by Netanyahu made it difficult for the new Israeli government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, which came to power in June 2021, to provide concessions in return for additional normalization steps.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi on an official visit to Morocco in July 2022 by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to Image)

Second, the Palestinians were taken by surprise, and reacted harshly against the UAE. This took place in the context of already tense Emirati-Palestinian relations, which continue to be tense today. The reason for the Palestinian anger is multifold. They were not consulted or even informed when the UAE decided to normalize ties with Israel, but they knew that this was not something that they would have accepted anyway. They are also fearful that it could lead to a domino effect of other Arab states embracing normalization. For that reason, they are concerned that it could lead to the unraveling of the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which they consider the basis for a final settlement. Finally, they are unwilling to admit, even to themselves, how much things have changed since the Arab world took steps against Egypt when it decided to pursue peace with Israel in 1977—steps that included moving the Arab League from Cairo to Tunisia and the severing of diplomatic ties with Egypt by almost all Arab countries.

Third, the Biden administration has been advocating for Arab, African, and Islamic countries to pursue  normalization with Israel. However, Biden is unwilling to follow in the footsteps of the previous administration by paying the price of new normalization deals. At the same time, he was not willing to pressure Bennett and Lapid’s fragile, broad coalition that was established after the last Israeli election to provide meaningful concessions to the Palestinians, as he felt that that could lead to its collapse, which inevitably happened regardless. Despite successive administrations claiming that Arab-Israeli normalization would advance prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, today this outcome has not materialized.

Fourth, the political will of the normalizing countries is also a challenge. The UAE felt that suspending annexation is all that it was willing to do, and that any additional steps could not take place without a genuine effort by the Palestinian leadership to mend fences. Morocco and Sudan probably felt that putting conditions on Israel might derail their deal with the U.S.

Finally, the approach by several Western countries arguing that the train has left the station and it is up to the Palestinians to catch up is also counterproductive. Palestinians are not willing to become an afterthought. Including elements on the agenda of the Negev Forum to improve living conditions for Palestinians is totally inadequate. There are certain non-negotiables the Palestinians require in order to change their attitude toward the whole approach. The multilateral track in the Madrid Peace Process included an element of gradual normalization, but the whole process revolved around resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict; without a clear path toward advancing the two-state solution, it is very difficult for the Palestinians to accept this approach.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, May 2021

What can be done?

Despite these challenges, it is possible to leverage normalization agreements to advance prospects for peace. The question now is what can be done by the parties and stakeholders to achieve this objective.

There is no doubt that from the perspective of Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, the normalization agreements have advanced their interests. Sudan is preoccupied with numerous internal issues and relations with Israel have advanced at a far slower pace. There is ample proof that these relations are steadily advancing in important areas. Shifting Israel from the U.S. European Command to Central Command (CENTCOM) allowed security cooperation to advance in a discreet manner. No details were released, for example, about the Middle East Air Defense Alliance that Israel claims started in 2015 and that Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz argued is already “thwarting Iranian attempts” to target the region.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and CENTCOM commander Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, June 2021

On the Israeli front, much will depend on the outcome of the upcoming elections in November. The potential that it could result in a swing to the far right would make  positive change extremely difficult. The shadow of Netanyahu and an approach based on “peace for peace” and galloping annexation is a recipe for further tension and escalation. A broader, more balanced coalition may provide some hope through the recognition that there is a need for a process based on mutual concessions to advance peace. Israel needs to recognize that the ceiling facing Arab countries in advancing normalization can be elevated as progress is achieved towards peace. The new normalization agreements provide proof that Israel is accepted and will be integrated and welcomed in the region in the context of peace.

The Palestinians need to get their act together. The popularity of the Palestinian Authority is at an all-time low. The leadership needs to work on reconciliation, good governance, and elections. Furthermore, it should work on ameliorating its relations, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and must provide a vision and engage in a manner that inspires its own people and the international community, which is preoccupied with other pressing priorities.

Recognizing that the U.S. is not willing to expend any significant political capital, the administration still needs to work harder on several fronts after the midterm congressional elections and the elections in Israel. The level of ambition to do so within the administration is quite modest, but even so, several small steps could serve as a meaningful start. First, the U.S. should translate its policy statements into action plans, including that both sides “deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity, and dignity” and Biden’s statement that “we cannot wait for a peace agreement to be reached or for every issue to be resolved to deliver on the needs of the Palestinian people that exist today.” Second, the U.S. should continue to ensure that irreversible steps like building settlements in E1 are completely shelved. Third, the U.S. should encourage normalizing countries to link future normalization steps with steps to advance peace.

The normalizing countries are yet to demonstrate the political will to use normalization steps as leverage to advance prospects for peace. However, they need to recognize what a poll by the Washington Institute showed: that 45% of Bahrainis polled held very or somewhat positive views of the Abraham Accords in November 2020, and that this support eroded to 20% by March 2022. The 49% of Emiratis that disapproved of the agreement in 2020 has grown to over two-thirds, and according to the Arab Barometer, only 31% of Moroccans polled support normalization. Recurrent tensions, particularly in Jerusalem and military attacks on Gaza, more than likely contributed to this large decline.

Then-President Reuven Rivlin meets with Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani in Jerusalem, November 2020, by Mark Neyman / Government Press Office, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

Furthermore, after the signing of the Abraham Accords, there was an expectation that other Arab and Islamic countries would soon follow suit. Even Oman and Qatar, which have long maintained contacts with Israel, refused to join. The Saudis have been willing to take modest steps, like permitting Israeli overflights of its airspace, but continue to stress their unwavering adherence to the API and an insistence that normalization will come at the end of the process, not at the beginning.

There is an important role to be played by Egypt and Jordan in advancing Palestinian reconciliation, assisting Palestinians in formulating a vision for their future, and reconciling Palestinian relations with both the Saudi and the Emirati leadership.

National interests will remain paramount. However, this does not mean that the Arab public opinion is willing to forgo the necessity of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The risk is that escalation, particularly in Jerusalem, and the absence of progress will negatively affect normalization, similar to the decline that was witnessed after the breakdown of the Madrid multilateral process. Transforming normalization agreements into a bridge rather than a bypass can be instrumental in advancing the prospects of peace, and this remains a collective responsibility of all those interested in advancing peace and stability in the Middle East.

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Gaza After Operation Breaking Dawn: What Now?

August 2022

As the guns went silent after yet another round of fighting between Israel and Gaza—the second in 14 months, and the fifth since Hamas took over the Strip in 2007—many wonder whether the two sides are destined for a reality of perpetual conflict; whether another generation of Palestinians and Israelis must witness the horrors of violence, live in fear, and (particularly on the Palestinian side) grow up in untold poverty and misery; or if there is another way.

Below are individual perspectives viewing the issue from four regional vantage points.

An Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza Strip on August 7, 2022

The opinions and proposals expressed in these pieces are only reflective of the respective authors’ opinions and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of Israel Policy Forum.

There Is Another Way

by Nimrod Novik

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi

Tactical Success

The recent brief outbreak of violence ended with what is rightfully viewed by Israelis as a significant success: the IDF managed to inflict a heavy blow on the Gaza-based Iranian proxy Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) with no casualties and minimum damage on our side, all while going to great length to minimize civilian casualties among Gazans (as evidenced by released intelligence voice and video recordings).

The operation’s architects are also credited with the fact that violence lasted a mere 66 hours, with managing to keep the far more powerful Hamas on the sidelines, and—unlike in May 2021—with ensuring minimal disturbances in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, or among Israel’s Arab citizens.  

As it often has in the past, Egypt received much credit for helping to secure an early ceasefire (with some assistance from Qatar and U.N. envoys), and the main international and regional players either acknowledge Israel’s right to self-defense or, with very few exceptions, criticized it in unusually reserved terms.

Strategic Inertia

This sense of relief Israel is experiencing tends to reinforce tendencies best characterized as strategic inertia. Throughout the decade and a half since Hamas took over the Strip, an era characterized by frequent periods of tension and fighting, Israelis have been convinced that they are faced with a choice between two bad options: the current failed policy of “more of the same,” whereby Israel seeks to “buy silence” by measures that partially relieve the closure, only to face another round of violence and another at ever shorter intervals; or getting rid of Hamas altogether by re-occupying the Strip and “cleaning it up.” The latter option not only poses the risk of massive casualties on both sides, but also lacks an exit strategy; how long will Israel be stuck with managing the lives of millions of Gazans and who—if anyone—will ever take it off our hands? In despair, some have thrown into the equation a third option: the illusion that Israel could inflict a major blow on Hamas from which it could never recover. The two bottom lines are so obvious: there are no simple solutions to complicated problems, and political issues do not lend themselves to strictly military answers.

An Alternative Strategy

The first to realize that the current policy offers no lasting stability and to present an alternative strategy was the Egyptian security establishment. Shortly after the Gaza war in 2014, Cairo formulated a detailed alternative strategy, sanctioned by President Sisi, in order to break out of the cycle of violence and unrest surrounding Gaza that was a burden on Egypt’s security, Palestinians’ political future, and regional stability.  

It was presented to the then-Prime Minister Netanyahu, who endorsed it, only to astonish Cairo by sabotaging it but a few weeks later.

Adopting the logic of the Egyptian approach, which was suspended and then re-introduced by Egypt in 2017, two Israeli organizations, the Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF)* and Commanders for Israel’s Security,** joined forces in embracing the framework, periodically updating it, and enhancing its Israeli security dimension.

With ECF operating behind closed doors domestically, regionally, and internationally, and CIS—based on its unmatched security credentials—advocating it to the Israeli leadership and public, the two proposed that Israel launch a transformative plan for the Gaza Strip, which also would include related constructive steps regarding the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Regional-International Coalition

Much like the Egyptian plan that inspired it, their plan calls for the creation of a powerful Israeli-initiated, U.S.-led regional and international coalition as a key prerequisite for progress. The purpose of this coalition would be both to usher the two Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, along the path suggested by this plan and to contribute—financially and otherwise—to its implementation. Regional participation, considered a fantasy when proposed by Egypt, looks far more realistic in the wake of the Abraham Accords.

Reflecting the Egyptian plan, this CIS/ECF initiative calls for the concurrent pursuit of three objectives:

  • Solidified ceasefire arrangement—without which donors would not risk their investment
  • Gaza rehabilitation—without which no stability can be expected
  • Restoration of PA civil management of the Strip—without which Israel would object and donors would so be reluctant to contribute as it would benefit Hamas
Gaza City

Ceasefire

In addition to a resolute strategy of Israeli military deterrence, there is a need to formalize and institutionalize ceasefire understandings that go beyond the vague—and failed—existing formula of “quiet for quiet.” Though no understandings can prevent intentional ceasefire violations, this approach aims to both prevent an escalation arising from a third-party provocation and friction due to misunderstandings. The plan deemed Egypt central for negotiating the ceasefire’s terms, and Egypt might also prove critical should it agree to lead an on-the-ground monitoring mechanism.

Gaza Rehabilitation

It is both a humanitarian imperative and an Israeli security interest that the Gaza population’s living conditions improve. Yet Israel and the donor community alike are also determined to prevent Hamas from benefiting from funds earmarked for reconstruction and development. 

Moreover, there are ample indications that fear of an Arab Spring-like uprising was one of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s primary motivations for cooperating with the Egyptian proposal (both in 2014 and 2017) to gradually replace Hamas with the PA in civil management of the Strip. Thus, weakening Hamas seems a prerequisite for the proposed strategic change. The plan called for Gaza development to be pursued in ways that would deprive Hamas of opportunities to benefit from it. 

Consequently, while encouraging the U.S. to mobilize the donor community in organizing a major Gaza rehabilitation and development program, the plan called on Israel to pursue this effort—both independently and jointly with like-minded regional and international partners—while acting against Hamas’ assets, including its sources of funding and its presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, all by undertaking the following steps:

  • Replacing the mechanisms for the direct transfer of funds via Hamas with mechanisms that ensure the funds serve their intended purposes
  • Conditioning the donor community’s support for Gaza’s economic reconstruction on preventing Hamas’ rearmament
  • Designing a strict reconstruction supervision regime, along with securing a commitment from regional and international participants to apply sanctions on Hamas should it violate its ceasefire obligations and breach rearmament restrictions

Restoring PA Management

Recognizing the poor state of the PA and its limited capacity to resume responsibility for Gaza civil management, the proposed strategy involves a gradual approach concurrent with steps that would also bolster its governance capacity (serving objectives that transcend the Gaza issue).

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

Frustration with a decade-long Israeli strategy of weakening the PA led ECF and CIS to call upon the Israeli government to inject real substance into the more recent, largely rhetorical commitments to “strengthen the PA” and “shrink the conflict.” 

This would include the following:

  • Committing to a future negotiated two-state agreement
  • Clarifying that the West Bank and Gaza are viewed as a single, integrated polity
  • Reaffirm the PLO’s role as Israel’s only Palestinian negotiating partner

Subject to Israeli security needs, this would also include:

  • Enabling Palestinian economic development in Area C of the West Bank
  • Re-designating portions of Area C as Area B or A
  • Seriously addressing settler violence
  • Ending all forms of “creeping” or de facto annexation in the West Bank
  • Ending Palestinian evictions in East Jerusalem
  • Tolerating no provocations regarding Jerusalem holy sites and restoring responsible administration on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif based on the historic Status Quo, including Jordan’s role there
  • Ending IDF incursions into areas where PA security forces exercise their duties as agreed

Risks

While advocating the plan to Israelis, it is crucial to point out not only the obvious benefits of its success for Israelis and Palestinians, but also the consequences of failure. Here, two considerations are noteworthy: First, should Israel pursue the plan in earnest for a year or two before facing its possible failure, the danger posed by Gaza militants is not likely to increase, given the enormous power imbalance, which is only likely to grow. Second, if it has demonstrated to the world a sincere intention to change the dynamics on the ground in nonviolent ways, should Israel then need to use force, it is likely to enjoy both consensus at home and legitimacy abroad. 

* The Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF) is the Israeli NGO that launched the Oslo Process. Operating under the radar with a vast network of regional and international connections, it has been involved in all rounds of Israeli-Palestinian talks, both in Track I and Track II negotiations.

** Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) in a non-partisan movement of over 380 retired IDF generals, Mossad, Shin Bet, Police, NSC, and diplomatic corps equivalents.

One Operation Ends, the Countdown to the Next Begins

by Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar

Since it went into effect, the latest ceasefire has been observed. This ended yet another round of confrontation with Gaza, albeit a short-lived one exposing the Israeli government’s tactic of embracing more force to resolve issues with Gaza. This also confirms the lack of a fully developed strategy to resolve Gaza issues, let alone address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the Israeli unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005, during which Israel refused to negotiate the handover of the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian Authority, the situation progressed from bad to worse. This approach rendered the territory an effective power vacuum; since the PA security forces were largely destroyed over the course of the Second Intifada, Hamas’ military wing was able to take control of the territory in 2007. Since then, successive Israeli governments carried out one round of military strikes after another, implementing paralyzing, comprehensive closures to resolve issues of instability and address security threats. Whether the intended consequence of this Israeli policy or not, the situation worsened in Gaza over the years. One of the key aspects of this deterioration has been that in place of the Palestinian Authority, the Hamas movement and an alliance of smaller factions including Islamic Jihad has developed paramilitary capabilities that, while not posing a strategic threat to Israel, still undermine Israeli national security in several ways.  Employing offensive and defensive tactics, the Israeli government developed the Iron Dome missile defense system in part to confront the threat of rockets from Gaza, imposed tighter restrictions on access and movement, and launched minor and major military offensives to contain the threat, but have failed to eliminate it. 

The Israeli security dilemma regarding the Gaza Strip appears to stem from an assumption that if Hamas, the central power controlling Gaza, were to collapse, the security challenges would deepen. In the absence of an alternative, such as the return of the Palestinian Authority to control Gaza, which Israel has deemed unattainable at present, the Gaza Strip would be controlled by fragments of factions and warlords, a chaotic reality that would further undermine Israeli security. The Israeli response to the dilemma appears to be a carrot and stick policy vis-à-vis Hamas, which seeks to provide incentives for Hamas to maintain calm. This leads one to conclude that this round of violence is certainly not the last. It is fair to conclude that once there are enough reasons, pretexts, or justifications for any of the factions in Gaza, mainly Hamas, another round will be triggered.

Militants from al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad

Nonetheless, it is important to note that this round of confrontation was limited to Islamic Jihad, unlike most previous rounds, where all factions, including Hamas, were engaged. Some may think that Hamas decided not to participate in this round of fighting so as to preserve its governance in Gaza and maintain the incentives provided by Israel, including work permits for Gazans in Israel. While this may be true for this round, it does not answer the more strategic question of resolving the problem of Gaza. In fact, this Israeli tactic of using force and/or providing incentives for Hamas sets the stage for a more serious and comprehensive confrontation since the temporary calm is not based on solid solutions that address the root of the problem, nor does it involve mutual commitments—even ones arrived at via a third party—to maintain calm. Hence, an equation has been created whereby confrontations lead to more Israeli concessions (on work permits, financial relief, and the like). So, in the absence of a comprehensive change and for as long as the siege is in effect, the next round of confrontation is all but certain, as are others to follow, with no end in sight.  

In conclusion, another round of conflict in Gaza ends as the countdown for the next one starts. Military confrontations and extending limited incentives continue to be the main Israeli tactic in dealing with Gaza issues.

Then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (left) meets with then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in Israel, May 2014

It is about time for Israeli governments to conclude that this approach does not bring solutions and leaves both Israeli and Palestinian publics vulnerable to the woes of military confrontations, agony, and hate. So far there seems to be no growing interest in Israel to put forth a strategy to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole, or even one to deal with the question of Gaza more narrowly. It remains clear, however, that a long-term solution for Gaza will have to include the Palestinian Authority, which would coordinate with Hamas and other factions internally, as well as key regional players including Egypt, Qatar, and possibly others. If such a strategy aimed at resolving the issue of the Gaza Strip or a more comprehensive one addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large are not attainable or politically feasible from an Israeli perspective, the situation will continue to go from bad to worse, and short-term solutions will only deepen and complicate the next round of violence.

Who to Engage?

by Farah Bdour

PA President Mahmoud Abbas (left) meets with King Abdullah of Jordan (right) in Amman, March 2013 by Addustour, Jordan Press & Publication Co. / Khalil Mazraawi, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

Operation Breaking Dawn shed light on Jordan’s engagement strategy with the Palestinian players and the one-sided approach of having the secular PA as the only address for Palestinian affairs. The current debate among Jordanian political elites revolves around adopting a balanced approach toward other Palestinian players, like the religious Hamas and PIJ, and creating a secondary address to leverage Jordan’s Israel-Palestine policy, which states that the two-state solution is the only real political ground for achieving fair and comprehensive peace in the region. Although not a new discussion, it takes place at a time when Jordan is keen on building on the diplomatic momentum in the region following U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit and the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, and amid the PA’s recent diplomatic efforts to demand full membership for the State of Palestine in the U.N. However, the absence of any discussion over the inclusion of the local leadership that operates outside the orbit of the traditional leadership of Fatah and Hamas is shortsighted.

President Biden attends the Jeddah Security and Development Summit with leaders from the GCC+3 countries on July 17, 2022

The logic of the official Jordanian approach is two-dimensional: domestic and regional. Jordan is reluctant to engage with Hamas and PIJ, out of a desire to avoid facilitating the incubation of the Islamic model among the frustrated Jordanian youth who form the largest demographic group in the country. Hamas’ rise in popularity after the May 2021 round of violence, which grew well beyond its usual support base to reach wide segments of the Jordanian population, raised red flags among the security establishment. During the recent operation, the PIJ has received the same public zeal. Jordan is also concerned about the Hamasization of its own backyard, notably in the Jenin refugee camp, where joint PIJ, Hamas, and splinter Fatah groups are coordinating and launching armed operations. After all, Hamas has gained a reputation for meddling in the kingdom’s internal affairs, which drove the 1999 decision to close the group’s office in Amman. On the other hand, Hamas and PIJ’s alignment with Iran and Qatar might subject Jordan to the unpredictable whims of Gulf states and complicate Jordan’s relations with allies. Moreover, Jordan is concerned about the Iranian presence at its borders, which are facing attacks by militants linked to Iran. These calculations drove Jordan to maintain the one-sided approach of recognizing and legitimizing only the PA.

Those who advocate for adopting a balanced approach towards Hamas are laying a very compelling argument. The eroding legitimacy of the PA will cast its shadows on Jordan’s credibility as its alignment with a leadership that is perceived as an “occupation collaborator,” and its policy of avoiding engagement with resistance groups closer to the pulse of the street, will reflect negatively on the government’s perceived commitment to reform and integrating the people’s voice in decision-making. Jordan is implementing an ambitious political and economic modernization program, and is struggling to rebuild citizen-state trust, especially among youth. On the other hand, there is an assumption that the PA’s collapse is inevitable during or after Abbas’ tenure, along with a possible Hamas takeover of the West Bank. In either case, advocates call upon Jordan to establish relations with the arguably soon-to-be dominant party to prevent likely spillover from the security deterioration in the occupied territories. Hamas’ recognition of the 1967 borders and its flirting with the Jordanian government throughout the years are often cited as evidence of the pragmatic nature of the movement and its thirst for international legitimacy. It is interpreted as an indication for future softening of its position regarding Israel and other regional issues. Finally, the Egyptian model continues to be a source of fascination for many. Despite branding Hamas as a terrorist organization, Egypt has succeeded in asserting itself as the mediator between the group, Israel, and the U.S. This role has served as leverage for Cairo in consolidating its national interests. Based on these calculations, many call for adjusting Jordan’s engagement strategy and integrating Hamas as part of it.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

However, what is missing from this discussion is the inclusion of the voiceless local leadership in the territories and the development of a realistic roadmap for their engagement under the wider Jordanian policy of preserving the viability of the two-state solution. Jordan has a long history of trial and error when it comes to implementing different models of citizen participation in decision-making, particularly among marginalized segments of the population such as women and youth, advancing the partnership between government and citizens, and bolstering civil society. Jordan should learn from these experiences to invest in such initiatives under current circumstances, where Israel’s electoral cycle is still spinning and the PA’s legitimacy continues to erode. Jordan must coordinate with the PA and Egypt to facilitate the inclusion of marginalized community voices and gradually channel the management of vital resources to local communities and foster more accountability on the part of the management. Jordan could also work on creating a credible committee to observe this initiative and work to rebuild trust among the main Palestinian players.

A Short Military Confrontation With Disproportionate Implications

by Hesham Youssef

An Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza Strip on August 7, 2022

No one was ever in doubt about the damage that the Israeli army can inflict on Gaza, or in the occupied territories in general, in any military confrontation. The gap in the balance of power is one of the widest in the region. This has been the case in the wars that took place in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021, and in the latest military attack that ended on August 7, 2022. The duration of the conflict, the extent of the destruction in Gaza, the regional and international response, and other factors varied widely. However, unsurprisingly, like in previous confrontations, each side claims that to some extent it was able to achieve its objectives.

Another Episode in the Unrelenting Cycle of Violence

Israel achieved several important objectives in these wars and military operations. In the latest attack, it assassinated two key Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leaders and destroyed several of the organization’s military sites. It mostly achieved its objective of separating Hamas and PIJ; separating Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem; and separating the Palestinians and Arab Israelis—three characteristics that contributed to the spread of violence during the previous war in May 2021. This is one of the reasons why Israel avoided a prolonged war, as this would probably have resulted in further complications on these fronts. However, despite the ceasefire, Israeli forces have intensified incursions in the West Bank, killing four people, including an al-Aqsa Brigades commander, and apprehended numerous Palestinians undermining at least one of these objectives.

Israeli reports indicate that the performance of the Iron Dome is improving, but so are the capabilities of Palestinian armed groups to launch rockets. The Iron Dome had an 86% interception rate in 2012, 89% in 2014, 94% in 2021, and 97% in the last operation. However, Israel did not expect these armed groups— who have been under siege in Gaza since 2007—to launch more than 4369 rockets in 11 days in May 2021, or 1100 by PIJ in fewer than a mere three days. The range of rockets increased from two to three kilometers in 2001 to 160 kilometers in 2014. Ineffective as these rockets are, they still terrorize Israeli communities and resulted in Israel closing Ben Gurion Airport in May 2021 and diverting flights in 2022.

An Iron Dome battery in Israel

At the same time, the region has witnessed how Iranian assistance advanced the capabilities of Hezbollah to the point that it reached some level of deterrence vis-à-vis Israel and allowed the Houthis to attack Saudi Arabia and the UAE with significant consequences. Iran is a strong supporter of PIJ and its cooperation with Hamas has been advancing. The siege has not prevented the armed groups in Gaza from strengthening their capabilities, and this is expected to continue with Iranian support, despite all kinds of constraints.

Many in the region speculated that the upcoming Israeli elections played an important role in the recent decisions pertaining to the attacks on both Gaza and the West Bank. Prime Minister Lapid, they suggested, felt the need to present his credentials to voters who are increasingly moving to the right as he has no military experience. Defense Minister Benny Gantz was also viewed as eager to advance his chances in these elections.

On the Palestinian side, Hamas supported PIJ on the rhetorical level but not militarily. It also assisted Egypt in mediating the ceasefire. However, this military confrontation allowed PIJ  to demonstrate its military capability when it is on its own. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the relations will be strained between Hamas and PIJ, who lost two key leaders and expected Hamas to be more supportive.

Egypt has been active in efforts to achieve a ceasefire in all the above-mentioned wars and military confrontations. This time it was trying to deescalate the situation between Israel and PIJ to prevent the attack and continued its efforts once it started until a ceasefire was achieved, with important involvement by Qatar. Egypt indicated in the ceasefire understanding that it will endeavor to achieve a PIJ demand that two prisoners held by Israel would be released. Defense Minister Gantz has indicated that Israel will not release them.

What Should We Expect Going Forward?

 

  1. Hamas will continue to try to maintain calm in Gaza while encouraging escalation in the West Bank.
  2. PIJ will multiply its efforts in order to make sure that it is independently better prepared if it is again forced to have military confrontations with Israel on its own.
  3. Iran is expected to continue, and probably increase, its support to Palestinian armed groups.
  4. It is hoped that Israel would be very careful not to undermine Egypt’s ability to intervene by demonstrating some flexibility in relation to the two prisoners held by Israel, as it is almost certain that this will not be the last military confrontation. This ceasefire is quite fragile and already contains the seeds of a return to violence.

Where to Go From Here?

The Israeli government cannot claim that it wants to strengthen the Palestinian Authority (PA) while undermining its credibility through daily incursions, assassinations, apprehensions, home demolitions, land expropriation, settlement expansion, and more. The PA may soon be unable to control the security situation in areas under its jurisdiction in the West Bank.

In the latest military confrontation, Israel was able to differentiate between Hamas and PIJ. Israel should be able to explain why this differentiation cannot be applied between the PA and armed groups in Gaza, as for the past decade this is one of the main obstacles to Palestinian reconciliation. Israel should change the Netanyahu policy of holding the PA responsible for any attack, no matter the perpetrator, once it regains control over Gaza as long as other groups in the Strip are not disarmed. The ability of these armed groups to continue to resist one of the strongest armies in the world is their own measure of their success.

Addressing “the residents” of Gaza, Lapid said that Israel knows how to protect itself from anyone threatening it, but it also knows how to provide work, livelihood, and a life of dignity to anyone who wants to live in peace by its side; that there is another way to live through the path of the Abraham Accords and the Negev Summit; and that the choice is theirs—knowing very well that this narrative is a nonstarter from the Palestinian perspective without a clear political horizon. What transpired reconfirms that Israel is unwilling to accept that what it calls “mowing the lawn” is not a sustainable policy and that maintaining the status quo is a myth. Shrinking the conflict, economic peace, improving living conditions, and all these slogans will achieve neither Israeli security nor peace.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid

There cannot be a Gaza strategy without hope on how to address Palestinian national aspirations. It should be clear to Israel that Palestinian surrender is not an option. The next step for the Palestinians will most certainly be moving towards a struggle for equal rights in one state and not providing further concessions on final status issues.

Israeli leaders have been serving its short-term goals at the expense of its long-term stability and interest. Israel must decide whether it wants to end the occupation or continue to be an occupying power, because this will be a determining factor in its future path.

The PA also has its work cut out for it, as it is at a historically low level of popularity. Its performance leaves much to be desired regarding reaching a vision for achieving Palestinian national aspirations, promoting good governance, and conducting elections.

The international community keeps repeating the necessity of breaking this cycle of violence with every military confrontation—a noble objective that is only paid lip service. In addition to the aforementioned Israeli and Palestinian requirements, there is an important role to be played by the region, Egypt and Jordan in particular.  Moreover, President Biden said that “there must be a political horizon that the Palestinian people can actually see or at least feel,” and that “we cannot wait for a peace agreement to be reached or for every issue to be resolved to deliver on the needs of the Palestinian people that exist today.” Europeans also support these points, which are supposed to be the two legs on which progress can be achieved once there is a political will to do so. Meaningful progress is necessary to raise the risk and price of resorting to military confrontations.

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President Biden’s Forthcoming Visit to the Region

May 2022

Even though his agenda is loaded with pressing matters at home and abroad, and despite his administration’s intention to pivot away from the Middle East, President Joe Biden recently accepted the invitation of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to visit Israel in the not too distant future. According to press reports, the visit is expected to take place either before the G7 summit in Germany on June 26-28 or after a NATO summit in Spain on June 29-30.

Below are four perspectives on how the visit is viewed from regional vantage points, as well as related hopes, expectations, and concerns.

President Biden meets with Prime Minister Bennett at the White House, August 2021

The opinions and proposals expressed in these pieces are only reflective of the respective authors’ opinions and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of Israel Policy Forum.

Domestic Motivation—Regional Ramifications

by Nimrod Novik

Then-Vice President Joe Biden on his visit to Israel in March 2016, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

A Troubling Context

Against the backdrop of Jerusalem-related waves of violence during the recent convergence of Jewish and Muslim holidays, friends in Washington asked what future ‘black swans’ might again force President Biden and his administration’s senior advisors to re-engage in Israeli-Palestinian affairs when all are eager to focus on pressing matters elsewhere. 

The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a popular Al Jazeera reporter shot while covering violent clashes between the IDF and armed Palestinians, and the ensuing violent disruption of her massive funeral by Israeli police, certainly qualify.

Such tragedies and this kind of careless conduct are the marks of a conflict left to its own volition. 

Consequently, a dose of skepticism is warranted when discussing the likelihood that the presidential visit ends up reflecting the spirit it is intended to convey.

 I Am a Zionist

Priding himself on having met every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, and often defining himself not only as a friend but as a Zionist, this president is probably the most knowledgeable on all matters Israel compared to any predecessor. Likewise, his record of support for Israel—in the Senate, as vice president, and now as president—is second to none. These two features—unparalleled expertise and a record of solid support— position him as uniquely qualified to make a mark. No Israeli politician can ‘play’ him as some did when previous presidents undertook ambitious initiatives, not to their liking, and few Israelis are likely to buy his portrayal as hostile when a reluctant prime minister tries to undermine the message by smearing the messenger.

As the Biden school of Zionism firmly believes in a two-state solution as a prerequisite for preserving Israel’s character as both Jewish and democratic, it was reasonable to expect tensions over measures that make that objective even harder to achieve, including settlement expansion, settler violence, East Jerusalem evictions and demolitions, and Temple Mount provocations, to dominate his relationship with Naftali Bennett.

I’m Not Here for Peacemaking

Alas, it appears that no such test of will is in the offing. Long before the visit, it became clear that the president’s preference is to establish harmonious relations with Bennett. Some attribute it to the fragility of an Israeli coalition that got rid of Netanyahu and concern that its collapse would bring him back. Others argue that in carefully choosing its battles, Biden’s administration judged the Iran nuclear deal more urgent and important. And others yet attribute this unusual mute reaction to Israeli conduct, which the previous Joe Biden confronted forcefully, to U.S. domestic political considerations.

Be the reason as it may, thus far and with rare exceptions, the Biden administration has exhibited a combination of soft urging behind closed doors and a public posture of ‘no daylight between us.’ 

The visit too seems designed to serve several objectives, but making progress toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not among them. Even if one were to ignore for the moment the limited political capital available to President Biden, as well as the entire range of enormous challenges he must navigate in complex domestic and international settings, looking at the parties can make one lose the appetite to get involved. Suffice it to note the combined effect of the fragile Israeli coalition and an unpopular, weak, divided Palestinian leadership—neither able to make bold decisions even if it wanted to—to realize that under these conditions, any attempt to bridge enormous gaps in positions is both ill-advised and doomed to fail.

It’s Stability, Stupid.

Cynics would argue that the visit is designed primarily for domestic purposes, having to do with the looming midterm elections (belying Kissinger’s quip that singled out Israel for having “no foreign, only domestic policy”). However, it seems wrong to accept that narrow view. The timing might have to do with the domestic political calendar, but no Washington planner can ignore the policy ramifications of such a visit to Israelis, Palestinians, and the dynamics between them, as well as others in the region.

With no bold peace initiative on the agenda, there are reasons to conclude that the visit, much like the overall policy, is designed to contribute to what appears to be the president’s primary objective: stability. Yet, stability is anything but synonymous with inaction. 

This was evidenced in May 2021, when the president spent precious time on the phone with regional leaders and sent his secretary of state to the region in an attempt to contain violence, and again in April 2022, when his phone conversations were followed by the dispatch of other senior State Department diplomats, a visit to the White House by Jordan’s King Abdullah, a trip to Cairo by his national security advisor, and other efforts.

Once again, the old phenomenon has been at play: no stability can be expected when looking the other way, for the Arab-Israeli arena has a nasty habit of forcing itself on the agenda.

The Catch and a Hope

Election eve, midterms, or otherwise, it is hardly the moment for leaders to engage in high-risk policy initiatives. As noted above, at the reported time of the visit, the stars seem to be aligned against even lower risk-taking. Alas, the risks of omission are no less significant.

The March 2022 Negev Summit

Here are a few examples of pitfalls and opportunities planners and the president ought to take note of:

Political Horizon

The administration’s oft-repeated Israeli-Palestinian policy characterization has been perceived as accentuating the ‘here and now’ at the expense of the ultimate objective. As encapsulated in “Israelis and Palestinians deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity, and dignity,” the absence of a fifth “measure”—independence, statehood, or self-determination—seems to echo the notion of ‘shrinking the conflict’ while shelving the ultimate (if presently unattainable) objective of resolving it. Though on occasion, officials—from the president down—acknowledge continued commitment to a two-state solution, its absence from the main policy formulation has raised eyebrows: is this commitment merely lip service to a previous policy? 

If there is one area where the visit can be leveraged to inject some life into the elusive political horizon, it is by signaling an equal commitment to the ‘over the horizon’ as to the ‘here and now’ by injecting that fifth measure into the standard policy formulation.

A Regional Gathering

While one might argue that the visit should serve to bring regional partners together, with the accent on Israel’s peace partners—Egypt, Jordan, and Abraham Accord signatories—the administration would do well to consider two possible caveats: first, once such meetings become routine, the uniqueness of the Negev Summit, including its important working groups, is substantially diluted. Perhaps the visit should serve to announce the next round of the Negev Summit rather than to convene a competing forum. Second, and more important: while Palestinians might gain little from attending, they lose much by being excluded yet again. All who worry about the future of the fragile Palestinian Authority must avoid steps that further erode its residual legitimacy. Better to forgo a regional gathering—a Negev Summit sequel or otherwise—than to have it without them.

Jordan and Jerusalem

With every passing day, the cost of having undermined Jordan’s role in Jerusalem’s holy sites (as enshrined in its peace treaty with Israel), and the potency of the Jordanian Waqf on its behalf, is mounting. Absent an Islamic ‘mature adult’ to restrain incited Palestinian youth at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the task is left to the ill-suited Israeli police.

Here too the visit can be leveraged for powerful constructive messages. Whether in a trilateral meeting with King Abdullah and President Abbas or otherwise, President Biden can convey a clear and powerful message on the subject.

A Zionist Message to Israelis

As noted above, no president before him arrived in Israel with a more solid record of support. Convinced of the need to reach an eventual two-state solution, no previous president has ever been better positioned to talk straight to Israelis on the perils of closing the door on that option. One can only hope that while reiterating his self-identification as a Zionist, the president spells out in clear terms his Zionist vision and how incompatible it is with creeping—let alone galloping—annexation.

President Biden will be warmly welcomed by Israelis. Let’s hope that by the time he flies back home, he will have seized on that sentiment in promoting his objective of greater stability, adding to it a guarded measure of hope. 

He Is Not Coming for Us, He Is Coming for Other Bilateral and Domestic U.S.-Israeli Reasons

by Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha

Then-Vice President Biden and President Obama meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, May 2009.

Since the election of President Biden to the White House in 2020, the Palestinians have taken several steps to restore political contacts with the U.S. administration following a three-year boycott of the Trump administration. Initially, the Palestinians had high expectations from the Biden administration. Those expectations were primarily based on its policy declarations with respect to undoing the damage caused by its predecessor to Palestinian–U.S. relations and the delicate state of Israeli-Palestinian affairs. At the top of these expectations was the reopening of the U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem, a campaign promise made by Vice President Kamala Harris. Other expectations included reaffirming support for the two-state paradigm as the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since its elections, however, the Biden administration has fallen short on both counts. No concrete steps have been made on the ground to reopen the consulate and no meaningful measures were taken to launch a serious process of peacemaking. The seeming lack of serious engagement and preoccupation with other issues regionally and globally has resulted in deep disappointment among Palestinians—leaders and the public alike. This sentiment clouds the anticipated visit of President Biden.

Almost none of Palestinians’ expectations has materialized. Not only did the U.S. administration fail to deliver on the Palestinian-Israeli track, but it also did not address any of the significant issues on the U.S.-Palestinian bilateral track. Trump’s proclamation of “unified Jerusalem” as the capital of Israel remains intact, despite its inherent contradiction with longstanding U.S. policy and international law. Furthermore, the PLO delegation office in Washington remains closed since the Trump administration shut it down in late 2017. The Palestinians generally view the issue of reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem as a top political priority, because it relates to the most significant final-status issue: the status of Jerusalem. Another major policy initiative undertaken by the previous administration that has not been revised by the Biden administration relates to the Abraham Accords. While the Biden administration highlighted the need to leverage these agreements to boost the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in practice, not much has been done to undo the damage of sidelining the Palestinians entirely from this process. For the past two decades, the Palestinian diplomatic and political stance was based almost entirely on advocating the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, whereby Arab and Islamic states’ normalization with Israel is to follow the end of the Israeli occupation of the territories it took control of in 1967. From a Palestinian perspective, the Accords had a devastating impact on their political leverage. Lastly, the Palestinians attempted to use the renewed political contact with the U.S. administration to help restore Arab (and other) financial support to the Palestinian Authority, including from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but that objective was not achieved either.

These issues and the U.S. demand to transform the Palestinian prisoner payments into an acceptable welfare system, thereby also addressing the paralyzing impact of the Taylor Force Act on U.S. assistance to the Palestinians, have created a deeper state of frustration. The Palestinian plan to deal with the prisoner payments system is to transform the bulk of such payments into early retirement stipends and to place others—mainly younger recepients—on the payroll of civil and security agencies. Though it has been under incremental implementation for nearly two years, it has not been recognized by either the U.S. or Israel as living up to expectations. 

If all that was not bad enough, the visit also comes amidst unconfirmed reports that the president intends to hold a regional summit for the signatories of the Abraham Accords. Should such a summit take place without active Palestinian participation, this would be another blow to the standing of the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian cause. Needless to say, such a summit will further damage the delicate relations between the U.S. and the Palestinians. While the Palestinians are not in a position to force Israel or the U.S. to secure their presence, this will further undermine U.S. political leverage over the Palestinian leadership.

While these issues constitute major challenges that a single presidential visit to the region is unlikely to resolve, such a visit could nonetheless serve as a catalyst for energizing the start of a meaningful process. There are some tactical and strategic policy questions that could be addressed, or at least raised, during the visit.  

The former U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem by Isaac Shweky, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

The U.S. may want to consider the following steps:

On a tactical level,

  • Empower the Jordanian Waqf Department on Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount, which would be in line with the stated U.S., and in some ways Israeli, policy by preserving the historic and religious Status Quo. This requires the practical step of reintroducing Jordan’s Jerusalem Islamic Waqf Department’s full authority over the site. The Waqf’s powers were seriously undermined throughout recent years, mainly with regard to coordinating non-Muslim visits and unilateral Israeli action on the site. 
  • Initiate a formal Palestinian-U.S. dialogue, which should involve senior officials on both sides, to address bilateral issues including reopening the U.S. consulate, reopening the PLO mission in Washington, prisoner payments reform, and other matters of concern. Such a committee was formed in the summer of 2021. However, it was composed of high-level Palestinians but low-ranking U.S. officials. This undermined the Palestinians’ confidence that the U.S. representatives were in a position to deliver on their quests. A new formation could also look into the possibility of initiating a dialogue with members of Congress or senior staffers to discuss the legislative implications of issues at stake.

On a strategic level,

  • Address the issue of Jerusalem in a way that is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy. The Trump administration’s Jerusalem proclamation stated that “recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcing the relocation of our embassy do not reflect a departure from the strong commitment of the United States to facilitating a lasting peace agreement. The United States continues to take no position on any final status issues. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final-status negotiations between the parties.” Yet, subsequently, the Trump administration made numerous statements strongly indicating that Jerusalem is no longer on the agenda for final-status negotiations. The current administration left vague its exact position on East Jerusalem while affirming the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. A policy statement clarifying the policy would be a game-changer on the Palestinian, and perhaps Arab, side of the equation.

Given President Biden’s preoccupation with a host of domestic and international challenges, Palestinians are sober enough to expect no historic breakthrough. Yet, given their low expectations, with a little effort, the president’s visit can do much good in injecting a measure of confidence that Washington is interested in turning a new page, is aware of Palestinians’ aspirations, needs, and desires, and, while insisting on certain quid-pro-quos, is prepared to take steps to make good on its past promises and address current needs. 

Back to Basics

by Farah Bdour

President Biden meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House, May 13, 2022.

President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East arrives during a critical period in the new chapter of Israeli-Jordanian relations. Since the formation of the Bennet-Lapid government in 2021, a noticeable diplomatic effort has been invested in repairing a decade of damaging policies under Netanyahu. These efforts included reviving high-level visits and resuming strategic talks over shared interests, as well as coordinating measures to prevent a recurrence of the May 2021 violence. Yet, despite these efforts, tension grew between the two states after a rapid series of events that put the bilateral relations under real test, risking its reversal.

The series of events began with the eruption of violence in Jerusalem last month, during which Israeli actions were viewed as designed to change the Status Quo at al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif and impose a spatial and temporal division of the compound. Consequently, the Jordanian government stepped up diplomatic pressure on Israel by holding a number of high-level calls and meetings with regional and international partners, including, most notably, King Abdullah II’s phone call with President Biden and the monarch’s participation in a short-notice trilateral meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and then-UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed.   

Tensions continued to build after Prime Minister Bennett’s recent statements regarding Israel’s exclusive sovereignty over al-Aqsa Mosque, which was described by the Jordanian Parliament as “irresponsible.” The Parliament also warned that Bennett’s statement has the potential to ignite the region in religious conflict, calling it a coup against the historic reality of al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem. Moreover, the Israeli decision to endorse blueprints for building more than 4,000 new settler units in the occupied Palestinian territories led the Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to condemn the decision, describing it as a dangerous violation of international law and undermining peace efforts toward reaching a solution to the conflict.

To make things worse, the killing of the iconic Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the images of the Israeli police intrusion into her funeral procession were met with great shock and outrage in Amman. Abu Akleh, a graduate of a Jordanian university, enjoyed close relations with various circles in Jordanian society. Commenting on her killing on Al Jazeera, Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi stated that all indications show that Israel bears responsibility while describing the Israeli police’s actions as abhorrent and inhumane. 

Amidst these tensions, and prior to President Biden’s arrival to the region, the Jordanian king met the president at the White House. Upon the meeting’s conclusion, President Biden confirmed his “unwavering support” for Jordan and His Majesty’s leadership. The president recognized Jordan’s crucial role as the custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem and cited the need to preserve the historic Status Quo at al-Haram al-Sharif. The president also affirmed his strong support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

An assessment of these statements suggests that the president set guidelines to steer Israeli-Jordanian relations through tense times, within an American regional policy objective of “keeping calm.” Repeatedly, it was proven that the erosion of the Status Quo in Jerusalem and weakening of the Hashemite custodianship have the potential to set the region on fire. Therefore, what the president seemed to call for was going back to basics, as outlined in Article 9 of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. Like the Jordanians, Biden seems to view a restored Status Quo as critical to mitigating a major source of regional instability and preventing further deterioration in relations between two U.S. allies in the region. In an interview with H.R. McMaster in Washington, D.C., King Abdullah II referred to the interconnectedness of regional and global threats and the need for adopting a holistic approach in addressing various challenges. King Abdullah then pointed out that American presidents ignore the Middle East “at their own peril, because it will come back and give [them] a swift kick on the backside if [they are] not careful.” Tending to the Palestinian issue and resolving the conflict is a must, he concluded. 

Given the American status as guarantor of both the Israel-Jordan peace treaty and Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles, from a Jordanian perspective, going back to basics requires immediate, robust, and active American diplomacy to clarify the Status Quo and ensure its implementation. Failure to do so would increase Jordan’s domestic constraints, leaving it with little room to maneuver and no choice but to abandon its long-held balancing act and resort to aggressive policies vis-à-vis the fragile Israeli government. The ensuing more complex and volatile security environment will serve no one. 

Jordan, long struggling to accommodate well over one million refugees from Syria (not to mention a previous wave from Iraq), has serious concerns regarding challenges in Yemen, the humanitarian disaster in Lebanon, the aftermath of two years of the COVID pandemic, food security issues, and the re-emergence of Daesh in Syria, Iraq, and Africa. Jordan is also concerned that any vacuum in the south of Syria will be filled by Iranians and their proxies, leading to an escalation of problems on the Jordanian border which is regularly subjected to attacks. This entire range of challenges is best addressed in close coordination with the United States and Israel. For that to happen, Washington must stay tuned and engaged and Israel needs a course adjustment.

Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem.

Restoring Jordanian authority over the al-Aqsa compound would ease public pressure and provide room for Jordan to reclaim its leading stabilizing role and to do what it does best: employing its deft diplomacy to weave a complex fabric of ties with Americans of all stripes, with Israelis, and with close friends in the region, and use those ties to integrate mechanisms to stem violence and reduce tensions, primarily in Israel and the Occupied Territories. King Abdullah’s productive meetings with senior National Security Council, Pentagon, and USAID officials, as well as Congressional leadership, confirmed U.S. support for Jordan taking the lead in coordinating efforts within mechanisms such as the Aqaba Process.  

Despite challenges, King Abdullah II pointed out that there is a new desire among Arab countries to reengage in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and move forward with normalization of relations. However, he stressed that unless the Palestinian issue is resolved, no matter what relations Arab countries have with Israel, we will see a step forward and two back.

Going back to basics and to the principles outlined in the historic Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty will open the door to changing the perception of the Jordanian public that diplomacy works, treaties matter, and the use of violence will not achieve anything of value. Consequently, in preparation for President Biden’s visit, it is important to articulate steps that safeguard Jordan’s national interest in preserving the historic Status Quo at al-Haram al-Sharif and respecting the Hashemite custodianship in Jerusalem. This should include holding the long-awaited meeting between Jordanian and Israeli officials to clarify and agree on the interpretation of the Status Quo in Jerusalem and respecting the authority and powers of Jordan’s Jerusalem Awqaf and Aqsa Affairs Department. The Americans can play a crucial role in sending that message and making it happen, both by helping bridge gaps and guaranteeing that agreements are reached.

Seven Criteria to Assess Biden’s Visit to the Middle East

by Hesham Youssef

An Egyptian watchtower on the border with Gaza by Marius Arnesen, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

At a time when the world is focused most on the Russian war against Ukraine and its devastating global repercussions, President Biden will be making his first trip to the Middle East. He is expected to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. His administration has not written off an additional destination for a regional meeting, but it is quite complicated and may not be achievable.

The discourse regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the beginning of this administration and the formation of the current Israeli government make for low expectations of his visit. However, absent some practical steps, the visit will not augur well for an administration that is facing a credibility crisis in the region, even though this conflict is no longer high on the list of U.S. priorities.

To its credit, the administration reasserted that the two-state solution is the only way to resolve the conflict and repeatedly indicated that the United States believes that Palestinians and Israelis “deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity, and dignity.” It was also instrumental in ending the Gaza war in May 2021, which witnessed a particularly active role by Egypt, and resumed some assistance to the Palestinians that had been all but terminated by its predecessor. 

Most of the administration’s efforts to prevent destabilizing developments have been done behind closed doors. It sent strong messages to Israel on a number of issues including its practices in al-Haram al-Sharif and Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, and in relation to settlement activities and house demolitions, indicating that they constitute unilateral actions that undermine prospects for a two-state solution. However, with the recent announcement of over 4,000 new settlement units and continued house demolitions, it is clear that the messages were not heeded.

The administration also put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to reform payments to the families of prisoners and martyrs and curricula in Palestinian schools. At the same time, the administration did not honor its promise to the Palestinian leadership to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem or to reverse other policies of the previous administration including by declaring settlements as inconsistent with international law.

This visit is challenged by two developments: the administration suffers from low popularity on the eve of midterm congressional elections and finds it difficult to exert pressure on an Israeli government that is on the verge of collapse. Moreover, it should find it difficult to press Palestinians without having anything meaningful to offer them, especially at a time of great tensions resulting from the killing of the Palestinian reporter Shireen Abu Akleh and the disruption of her funeral.

Palestinian municipal elections in 2012 by René Wildangel, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

It is against that backdrop that it is doubtful that significant progress could be made during the visit. However, its impact should be assessed based on the visitor’s political message and steps taken by all sides in its wake, specifically on the following seven issues.

1. Political Horizon: The administration has indicated that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on final status issues may not be possible now. This relieves both sides of any pressure to make concessions and—as evidenced by recent rounds of violence—results in a dangerous stalemate. Now is the time to start defining the endgame. It has to be made clear that improving living conditions is not a substitute for a political process toward the end goal of achieving a two-state solution; that steps that undermine that objective are unacceptable; and that the status quo is not sustainable, neither in Gaza, nor in East Jerusalem or the West Bank and perhaps not within the Green Line either.

2. Jerusalem: Reopening the consulate may require some time, but the administration should at least indicate that it will be establishing an American embassy to Palestine in East Jerusalem in the context of progress towards peace. In the meantime, the status quo in al-Haram al-Sharif that was accepted and reaffirmed in 2015 by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister at the time, should be restored and upheld in line with the statement issued after Biden’s meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, and evictions and house demolitions should be terminated.

3. Two-State Solution: The administration should reiterate its adherence to the two-state solution and be firm in opposing steps that undermine that objective, including settlement activity, house demolitions, and Israeli practices in East Jerusalem.

4. Munich Group: In line with its new approach that fosters multilateralism in dealing with international challenges, the administration should engage with and support the efforts of the Munich Group (France, Germany, Egypt, and Jordan), including in calling for the implementation of confidence-building steps it presented to the parties.

5. Palestinian Elections: The administration should be more forceful in its support for conducting Palestinian elections, including in East Jerusalem in accordance with the Oslo Accords and as was the case during previous Palestinian elections. This can bolster the legitimacy of Palestinian institutions, which contribute to intra-Palestinian reconciliation efforts led by Egypt.

6. Normalization: In supporting the Abraham Accords, the administration expressed hope that the normalization agreements can build bridges and contribute to a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The time has come for the administration to translate this objective into practical steps. The slogan that Palestinians and Israelis “deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity, and dignity” should also be translated into a concrete action plan in cooperation with partners in the region and the EU. If the discussions to convene a regional meeting during the visit are successful, this should constitute the main focus of its deliberations. The location, participation, agenda, and outcome of this proposed meeting require separate analysis and evaluation.

7. RIP Shireen Abu Akleh: The general perception in the region is that Israel acts with a sense of impunity. With the visit coming soon after this tragic incident that shocked Palestinians, the region, and the international community, the U.S. should send a message on whether this impunity continues unabated.

This visit is an opportunity for the administration to lay the groundwork for more concrete efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front following the war on Ukraine, the midterm congressional elections, and the current period of instability and uncertainty facing Israel’s coalition. If this does not happen, it would greatly reduce prospects for stability, let alone any significant progress in advancing peace during Biden’s term of office.

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When Passover and Ramadan Coincide

May 2022

This year’s convergence of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian holidays should have been an opportunity for people to come together. However, in these difficult times, some are content with the fact that the situation is far less violent than last year. It seems that key players internalized important lessons, but this process has only just begun.

To what should the marked improvement be attributed, what did still go wrong, and what will it take for next year’s holiday season to be more peaceful yet?

Below is an attempt by the members of an Israel Policy Forum task force to offer four perspectives—Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian—on these questions.

A New Government, Signs of a Different Approach

by Nimrod Novik

The Knesset Building in Jerusalem, Israel

Overview

When Jews gather for the Passover Seder, tradition has it that the youngest asks four questions, beginning with “Why is tonight different?” Even though the holiday season is still with us, and with challenging moments looming over the coming weeks, it seems that one can tentatively argue that compared with but a year ago, the differences are significant, mostly for the better.

A change in Israel’s conduct contributed to the fact that thus far we have not witnessed anything close to last year’s level of violence. On the other hand, several third parties—most significantly Jordan, an old peace signatory, and the UAE, a new normalizer—have been far more outspoken in expressing disapproval of Israel’s conduct than they were last year. Concurrently, Egypt, which was the key firefighter last year, was spared the need to mediate a ceasefire, but true to its pragmatic approach, combined private messaging with effective behind-the-scenes delivery of preventive diplomatic medicine. Finally, though far less engaged than during last year’s hostilities, and benefitting from ‘eyes and ears on the ground’ thanks to a fully staffed embassy, the U.S. proved unable to stay away. Its involvement—from presidential phone calls to the dispatch of senior State Department diplomats—seemed again to echo Al Pacino’s famous quip in The Godfather: “Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in.”

The Good News

Much of the credit for preventing an explosion resembling last year’s must go to the change in Israeli leadership. Though shaken by four recent terror attacks that took the lives of 14 Israelis, by the loss of its slim Knesset majority, and by other tensions stemming from the unprecedented diversity of the current coalition, this Israeli government proved determined to prevent extremists from igniting Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and Israel’s cities, as they did in May 2021. 

The Erez crossing from Gaza into Israel by amillionwaystobe, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Consequently, it took several preventive measures, including:

  • Controversial (if not provocative) demolitions of Palestinian houses and evictions of families in East Jerusalem were suspended.
  • Jewish extremists’ plans for provocative, arcane religious ceremonies at the Temple Mount as well as a provocative ‘flag march’ entry into Palestinian neighborhoods were forcefully prevented.
  • Police norms of conduct were refreshed and adjusted to account for the sensitive location and moment.  
  • Israel issued additional permits for Gazans to work in Israel and implemented other relief measures meant, inter alia, to deter Hamas from risking it all by opening fire. 
  • Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives on the West Bank were detained in an effort to thwart terror activities against Israel and Israelis. 
  • The government extended the traditional ten-day closure of the Mount for Jewish visitors to two weeks for the duration of the second half of Ramadan
  • West Bank closure, in the past lasting the entire Passover week, was shortened substantially.
  • All of this was preceded by discreet coordination with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and intense high-level consultations with Jordan, in order to signal adherence to the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty’s clause that ensures Jordan’s role in all matters related to Muslim shrines in the Old City and to coordinate preventive measures. This was in line with the Bennett government’s reversal of the Netanyahu policy of undermining both Jordan’s role in these matters and overall bilateral relations with this critical neighbor.
The March 2022 Negev Summit


Whom to Credit?

Some of the measures taken can be attributed to the advocacy of the IDF, Shin Bet, and other security agencies, reflecting lessons learned from last year’s experience. Others reflected a greater appreciation of the impact of al-Aqsa-related violence on important strategic partners. It was not only Jordan that cautioned about the risks associated with a reiteration of last year’s violence. That message came also from Abu Dhabi, Manama, and other Arab capitals. Nor was it the first time that these new partners signaled to Jerusalem that bilateral normalization is not immune to the effect of violence in the city and the Palestinian arena. As early as May 2021, it was Defense Minister Gantz who received the message over several phone calls from his Emirati counterpart. Subsequently, Prime Minister Bennett heard it from his host in Bahrain and Foreign Minister Lapid from his guests at the first Negev Summit.

Though weak and suffering from a lack of popular legitimacy, yet ignoring pressures to sever relations with Israel—security coordination included—Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reacted both cautiously and responsibly. Much like Jordan, with whom he is closely coordinating, he confined his protest to words, not deeds that could have further aggravated matters.

Two other players deserve credit: the U.S. and Mansour Abbas. Not the expected bedfellows, both Washington and the leader of the Islamist Ra’am party (a coalition partner of Prime Minister Bennett) pressed for similar lists of dos and don’ts, including preventing the flag march from entering Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods and continuing the practice of closing the Mount for non-Muslims for the second half of Ramadan.

The Bad News

On the domestic political front, it appears that both Prime Minister Bennett and MK Abbas have all but exhausted the political space afforded by their respective parties. In both, ideological diehards were up in arms over what was viewed as yielding on core values: Jewish freedom of visitation, prayer, and blunt demonstration of sovereignty for Religious Zionists; unrestricted and unfettered access to Muslims for the Islamist party. 

Otherwise, on the domestic front, it turned out that the message of a new mode of conduct did not reach all layers of law enforcement agencies. The phenomenon of the ‘strategic corporal’—where a junior officer’s misconduct triggers a crisis—found expression in viral images of police violence, feeding unfounded conspiracy theories and fueling tensions.

Vis-à-vis local Muslim populations, both West Bankers and Israel’s Arab citizens, a decade-long Israeli policy of undermining any entity claiming authority regarding al-Aqsa left the government and those acting on its behalf with no ‘address’. If in the past one could communicate and coordinate—discreetly or otherwise—with a center of authority that could exert influence over incited youth, this is no longer the case. Preventing any PA presence, undermining Jordan’s role, and castrating the Waqf’s potency opened the door for the most extreme agitators—Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Northern Branch of Israel’s Islamic movement, and others—to incite violence, forcing the Israeli police to deal with challenges it was not designed for.   

Intra-Palestinian dynamics were also affected by these events, and not for the better. Careful to not involve Gaza in yet another round of fighting with the IDF, Hamas—as well as PIJ—confined their activity to remotely inciting Palestinian youth to violent protest on and around the Mount. Both also bragged that it was their threats that forced Israel to restrain Jewish extremists and close the area to non-Muslims. Consequently, almost without firing a shot, Hamas reinforced the false dichotomy that Hamas and PIJ “protect Jerusalem” whereas the PA is “complicit in Israeli aggression.” Further undermining what remained of PA legitimacy, this was perceived as a continuation of Israeli policies that strengthen extremists while weakening moderates.

Regionally, reactions proved less forgiving than they were during May 2021. Jordan’s prime minister went as far as to express support for Palestinian stone-throwers; the UAE not only issued sharp public condemnations (which it had avoided doing last year) but went further by being instrumental in convening a U.N. Security Council emergency session on the subject. These are just the most striking examples. When asked about the reason for more forceful reactions to less violent developments, one Gulf diplomat intimated frustration with what had been perceived as an insufficient Israeli reaction to early warnings. Israel seemed less sensitive to the effect of images of violence at the holy shrine, which serve adversaries of its peace partners who seek to undermine internal stability and regime legitimacy, he added.

Although the various repeated cautioning messages from these capitals were hardly ignored, it seems that Israel did not fully internalize them. Indeed, when asked about it, more than one member of Cabinet expressed dismay at the sharp reactions given “all that we’ve done to prevent escalation.”

Bottom Line 

A decade-long erosion of the Temple Mount Status Quo, best summarized by former Prime Minister Netanyahu as “Muslims pray, others visit,” accelerated during his final years in office and contributed to last year’s violence and this year’s tensions. All who were rightfully worried in 2021, who appreciate the marked improvement in 2022, and who wish the holiday season of 2023 to be calmer and more peaceful yet must not waste a day in tending to this complex issue. Worthy recommendations are found in the other memos in this compilation, but they all must begin with clarifying the essence of the Status Quo, imposing strict adherence thereto, and empowering Jordan and, on its behalf, the Waqf, while finding ways to coordinate it all with both the PA and Israel’s other peace partners. It is with this in mind that the reported Israeli-Jordanian decision to convene the bilateral Jerusalem committee shortly after Ramadan should be welcomed.

 

Let’s Go Back to Pre-2000

by Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha

Ramallah, West Bank

This time last year, incidents in Sheikh Jarrah, at Damascus Gate, and in other East Jerusalem neighborhoods—including a provocative ‘flag march’ and incidents at al-Aqsa Mosque—triggered an armed confrontation between Hamas and the Israeli army that resulted in more than 260 Palestinians and 11 Israelis killed and enormous damage to Gaza infrastructure. This year’s holiday convergence proved far less fatal, but violent nonetheless. Tensions mounted following a number of attacks against Israeli civilians that killed 14 individuals, and subsequent Israeli military activities in the West Bank leaving 13 Palestinians dead. Tensions on the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem further increased, especially during the week of Passover—which coincided with the beginning of Ramadan, where thousands of Israeli right-wing activists, escorted by Israeli police, made their way onto the al-Aqsa compound.  Coupled with Jewish extremists’ calls for holding a Passover sacrifice ritual on-site, Palestinian activists heeded the calls of political factions, clergy, and others to “defend al-Aqsa” against alleged Israeli plans to change the Status Quo on-site and divide it temporally and spatially between Jews and Muslims.  

The Israeli government dismissed as lies all reports of intent to change the Status Quo, but that by itself did little to allay concerns. It helped mitigate tensions but not prevent clashes. These tensions, though not new, triggered a political and diplomatic public spat between King Abdullah of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority on one side, and the Israeli government on the other. The Palestinian official definition of the Status Quo to apply to holy sites is almost identical to that of Jordan. Both call for the restoration of the status as it existed until 2000. 

The following examines the Palestinian perspective on and dynamics related to this sensitive issue.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made several public comments calling to restore the pre-2000 arrangements on the site by giving full authority to the Jordanian Islamic Waqf Department, including coordinating all visits of non-Muslims. The Palestinian perspective is in line with the Jordanian position, stating that the Status Quo has been violated in past years, especially following the 2003 unilateral opening of the site for non-Muslims to visit without coordination with the Waqf Department. That is in addition to placing restrictions on the work of the Islamic Waqf in terms of a ban on its previously performed maintenance, restoration, and several other security and administrative functions. Furthermore, the Waqf Department is required to obtain Israeli vetting when hiring security guards and to seek permission to hold maintenance work, while Israeli police often prevent Waqf workers from carrying out such missions.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan

Over the years, Israeli religious nationalists violated the Status Quo by performing acts that, up until a few years ago, were prohibited by all Israeli governments since 1967. These have included raising the Israeli flag, praying on-site, holding lectures, and distributing posters of the Jewish Temple replacing the Dome of the Rock. In recent years, such practices have been increasingly tolerated by Israeli police, thus cementing perceptions among Palestinians that the Israeli authorities are complicit with Jewish extremists’ gradual plan to permanently alter the Status Quo and the character of the site, including by dividing it between Muslims and Jews spatially and temporally. 

In order to help manage tensions around this site and avoid making decisions that would lead to further deterioration, President Abbas canceled a leadership meeting that was expected to implement previously announced measures against the Israeli government, including terminating security coordination. Despite internal pressures and heated criticism, President Abbas called off the meeting and instead announced that the PA, as well as Jordan, were engaged in an intense political and diplomatic campaign aimed at restoring the Status Quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem. 

The 2007 Jerusalem Day flag march by Hoheit, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)

Among other players, Hamas officials publicly claimed credit for thwarting what they described as Jewish extremists’ schemes against al-Haram al-Sharif, and for the cancellation of the flag march that had triggered the firing of rockets toward Jerusalem last year. Hamas officials bragged about last year’s losses as “sacrifices” and claimed that their firm position effectively deterred aggressive acts against the city and the mosque.  Official Hamas statements also harshly criticized the PA for maintaining security coordination with Israel and for failing to defend Jerusalem and the holy sites.

According to well-informed sources, the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian Waqf Department presented the visiting U.S. diplomatic delegation with a list of terms from the pre-September 2000 Status Quo relating to the management of access of non-Muslims to al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif that they requested be reinstated.

This list included the following:

  1. Access to non-Muslims was subject to approval by the Jordanian Waqf Department through a prior written request.
  2. Non-Muslim prayers were not permitted in al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif, nor were prayer tools or instruments allowed.
  3. Deployment of armed personnel in al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif was not allowed.
  4. The Jordanian Waqf Department had the authority to regulate entry and access to al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif for non-Muslims, which included: 
    • Determining acceptable clothing, conduct, and behavior in al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif.
    • Setting security measures intended to preserve order in al-Aqsa Mosque/al- Haram al-Sharif.
    • Providing all personnel for security escorts in al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif.
    • Blacklisting tourists who breached visitation regulations and prohibiting them from entering in the future.
    • Predetermining the time, route, and duration of visits, specifically: 
      • The size of Jewish tourist groups (usually three and not exceeding five persons).
      • The route of the visits (predetermined by the Jordanian Awqaf Department, usually 150 meters in each direction). 
      • The frequency of visits.

In conclusion, while tensions on al-Haram al-Sharif/al-Aqsa Mosque this year were not unique, it is worth noting that for the first time since 2003, the Jordanian government, as well as the Palestinian Authority, launched a coordinated diplomatic and political campaign aimed at restoring the Status Quo as it persisted between the years 1967-2000.  While the full restoration of the pre-2000 Status Quo may be difficult to achieve immediately, it is imperative that gradual steps in this direction are taken right away, in order to secure a more peaceful holiday season next year and beyond. Having been weakened over the years, the Waqf is viewed by many as irrelevant. Its ability to control crowds and prevent incidents of violence has thus been seriously impaired. In order to defuse future tensions and eruptions of violence on the site, reversing Israeli practices that undermine Waqf authority on the site is an urgent priority.

Jordanian-Israeli Relations Are Not All Holly Jolly

by Farah Bdour

Amman, Jordan

It has been less than a year since the Jordanian and Israeli governments changed course, seeking to repair the frayed ties that had characterized bilateral relations over the previous decade. In the lead-up to the converging holidays, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Minister of Internal Security Omer Barlev, and President Isaac Herzog all held meetings with HM King Abdullah II and relevant senior Jordanian officials, which the monarch described as “very encouraging.” These meetings stressed the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries and a common objective of maintaining regional stability. They also discussed ways to enhance cooperation in trade, energy, water, and food security. Jerusalem, particularly its holy sites, was certainly on the agenda.

However, the momentum these meetings achieved is challenged by two factors: first, both Jordan and Israel are burdened by respective complex domestic agendas that affect foreign policy decisions, often resulting in contradictory positions despite shared interests. Second, a decade of Netanyahu leadership, less attuned to Jordanian interests and on occasion outright offensive to them, left obstacles that take a long time to overcome. This is particularly true when it comes to Jerusalem. 

Both Jordan and Israel have an interest in maintaining calm in Jerusalem and avoiding last year’s scenario when the “Sword of Jerusalem” clashed with the “Guardian of the Walls.” From a Jordanian perspective, instability west of the Jordan River has an eastward ripple effect. The Palestinian human toll, violations of the Status Quo in Jerusalem, and a potential civil war scenario in Israel can strike an angry chord among Jordanians and fuel confrontational sentiment among thousands. There are also concerns regarding the rise of Hamas’ popularity among Jordanians and its self-portrayal as the protector of al-Aqsa. Within the context of a fragile economy and high unemployment, popular anger might be exploited by extremists and undermine the ambitious program to democratize the country, thus affecting stability. 

Consequently, in the lead-up to the month of Ramadan and Passover, and following several terror attacks in Israel, the king took steps in trying to prevent a reiteration of May 2021’s violence. These included the above-noted meeting with Foreign Minister Lapid, where they agreed to “work together to calm tensions and promote understanding.” During a subsequent meeting with President Herzog the king condemned the terror attacks in Israel and conveyed condolences to the victims’ families. The same message was conveyed over a phone call with Prime Minister Bennett. 


Even though Israeli
preventive measures seem to have contained the violence over the past weeks, nonetheless, the Jordanian media featured images of incursion and aggression by Israeli security forces as well as provocative and violent conduct by Israelis against Palestinian worshippers. These images ignited nationwide protests in solidarity with the Palestinians and resulted in a massive majority in the Jordanian Parliament calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the severance of relations. Other reports suggested that the Israeli police blocked Muslims’ access to al-Haram al-Sharif while allowing a large number of ultra-nationalist Jews to enter the sacred site under police protection to pray at the compound in violation of the Status Quo. 

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Jordanians’ frustration with Israel’s conduct and the need to deal with the same situation year after year found expression in demands that their government react more forcefully to what is viewed as illegal Israeli practices that aim to change the Status Quo at al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif and impose spatial and temporal division on the compound. Consequently, the Jordanian government resorted to diplomatic pressure on Israel including by summoning—and conveying a sharp message to—the Israeli chargé d’affaires in Amman, hosting an emergency meeting of the Arab Ministerial Committee, and holding a series of phone calls with Arab, European, and U.N. leaders. Jordan conveyed the same concerns also in a meeting with a senior U.S. delegation that included Yael Lempert and Hady Amr, in a short-notice meeting attended by HM King Abdullah II with the Emirati Crown Prince and their Cairo host, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. As part of stepping up the pressure, in a phone call with President Biden, HM King Abdullah II also discussed the importance of maintaining coordination to prevent the recurrence of violations in Jerusalem that may undermine peace prospects and lead to further escalation. Finally, all this was followed by His Majesty’s April 28 trip to Washington.

In determining its response to the events of April 2022, Jordan seems to have factored its alarm with not only the continued erosion of the Status Quo (and its above-noted domestic ramifications), but also an appreciation of the need to encourage the fragile Israeli coalition to continue—and accelerate the pace—of changing the policies of its predecessor. It is in that context that Jordanians are well aware of the risk that, should a coalition crisis result in the return of previous policies, Netanyahu’s decade-long drive to undermine the Status Quo might see a sequel. It is during those years that Jordan and the Waqf were bypassed, as the role of the Israeli prime minister’s office, national police, border police, and special forces increased in managing the holy shrines. This was not only in contradiction to the specific clause in the peace treaty that acknowledged Jordan’s centrality. Weakening Jordan and the Waqf’s role has also empowered the anti-Jordanian pan-Islamist radical party Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party) and enhanced its presence at al-Aqsa, thus affecting the orientation of mosque visitors and activists (who reportedly provoked clashes with visiting Jordanian officials) and adding fuel to the fire. 

Jordan is not naïve about the possibility of securing long-term stability around Jerusalem’s holy sites, Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem, or in the region beyond, absent a far more comprehensive effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Likewise, there is no illusion that a solution is readily available. In the interim, dynamics on the ground are met with grave concern, as it seems just a matter of time until Jerusalem forces itself on the regional agenda, and in violent ways yet again. The annual calendar is studded with moments known to create tension. Just to illustrate, marking the unification of Jerusalem, Jewish nationalists opt for provocations the likes of which triggered last year’s violence in the city, clashes between Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens, and an 11-day war with Gaza. Averting such tragedies cannot await a comprehensive peace initiative.

Reflecting that logic, in an interview with CNN, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi introduced the Jordanian formula for addressing tensions in the city through the adoption of short-, medium-, and long-term measures designed to restore calm, address root causes of violence, and get the parties back to the negotiating table. The minister reiterated that this can only be done by respecting the legal and historic Status Quo, as well as the Hashemite custodianship, and by creating a credible political horizon to resolve the Palestinian issue. 

King Abdullah II meets with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, July 2021

The American envoys reportedly discovered in their meetings in Amman, Jerusalem, and Ramallah that relations between Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian officials were characterized by miscommunication and lack of coordination. Each seemed to hold a different understanding of what the Status Quo meant. It is in that context that Washington can contribute to local and regional stability by mediating both a clearer appreciation of the Status Quo and a process of its restoration. Washington can be most effective if it does so even prior to the joint Jordanian-Israeli Jerusalem Committee, which reportedly is set to reconvene soon.

Firefighting Will Not Achieve Peace

by Hesham Youssef

Cairo, Egypt

The good news is that there are intensive regional and international efforts to avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war. The preventive effort has been extensive, and the U.S. seems to be carefully monitoring the situation. The bad news is the reconfirmation of what most already know: the Israeli-Palestinian Status Quo is volatile and not sustainable. The resulting successive wars only take us many steps further away from peace.

Egyptian efforts have been instrumental in ending almost all the Israel-Gaza wars. Egypt has been continuously monitoring the pulse in the occupied territories, particularly in Gaza, and coordinates closely with Amman and Ramallah on issues pertaining to East Jerusalem.

Rafah, Gaza near the Egyptian border by Kashfi Halford, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (Licensed linked to image)

Egypt knows that Hamas has yet to recover fully from the repercussions of last year’s war in May 2021 and is not keen on facing another one; that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is facing an unprecedented legitimacy and financial crisis; that the Israeli government is fragile, on the verge of collapse, and wants to maintain calm but is constrained by extreme right-wing pressure; and finally, that the U.S. is preoccupied with what it perceives as more pressing priorities and is not dealing effectively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All these factors contributed to Egypt initiating a flurry of diplomatic efforts to avoid another war.

Like many countries in the region and beyond, Egypt condemned—and demanded an end to—the Israeli escalation in the Palestinian territories and continued incursions by Israelis onto the al-Aqsa Mosque compound under Israeli police protection. Stressing the importance of adhering to international law, Egypt called for the provision of due protection for Palestinian civilians, as well as for ending any practice that violates the sanctity of al-Aqsa Mosque and other religious sites or affects the identity of East Jerusalem.

The Egyptian president hosted a tripartite summit with Jordan’s King Abdallah and UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed. They stressed that their countries would spare no effort to restore calm in Jerusalem and stop all forms of escalation to enable worshipers to perform their religious practices without hindrances or harassment. They called on Israel to stop all measures that undermine the chances of achieving peace, to reach a political horizon, and to return to serious and effective negotiations to resolve the Palestinian question on the basis of the two-state solution and in accordance with international law.

Egypt also participated in the emergency ministerial meeting hosted and chaired by Jordan with representatives from Algeria, Morocco, the PA, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE that condemned the Israeli attacks in al-Haram al-Sharif. The parties warned that these actions represent a blatant provocation to Muslims and threaten to ignite a cycle of violence, and they expressed support for Jordan’s custodianship in administering holy sites. King Abdullah stressed the importance of observing the Status Quo at the Jerusalem holy sites.

However, Egypt was less vocal publicly, preferring to work in a more discreet manner behind closed doors compared to the PA and Jordan, who had sharp public exchanges with Israel.

Egypt conducted private talks with Hamas, including its leadership in Qatar, as well as with the PA and Israel. Egypt indicated to Hamas that the Israeli government is at its weakest and that if Hamas escalates, Israel will strongly attack in order to ensure its political survival and avoid criticism from the extreme right. Cairo expressed the fear that the fall of this government would lead to a more extreme right-wing one. Concurrently, Egypt is convinced that Hamas can calm things down and that violence would hamper the reconstruction of Gaza. Should this happen, the flow of construction materials would cease and Egypt will not issue work permits for construction engineers.

Egypt’s advice to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to issue a joint statement indicating that they do not seek escalation was not heeded. They said that this depends on Israel’s actions in Jerusalem. Stressing that they had no intention to escalate, the two organizations argued that securing calm is up to the Israelis, but they were determined to thwart Israel’s perceived interest in separating Gaza from Jerusalem and the West Bank. Hamas further demanded that Israel allow complete freedom of worship in al-Haram al-Sharif and stop military actions in the Jenin refugee camp. Publicly, both stressed that they had not committed to de-escalate.

Amidst rising tensions, Israel again asked Egypt to pressure Palestinian groups in Gaza to avoid escalation. At the same time, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatened that “if they release the gunlock, Israel will come crashing down on them.” Israel said its military was prepared for any eventuality, including attacks from Lebanon and Syria, as well as from Gaza. It was in that context that Egypt asked Israel to release over 400 Palestinians who were arrested during clashes at al-Haram al-Sharif.

All of this followed Egypt hosting an unprecedented tripartite summit (March 2022) with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, only a few months after the Israeli prime minister visited Egypt. Both summits reflected a new chapter in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Likewise, Egypt participated in the Negev Summit (also in March 2022), convened by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and featuring his American, Emirati, Bahraini, Moroccan, and Egyptian counterparts. During all these meetings, participants expressed concern that last year’s violence could erupt again due to tensions surrounding Jerusalem holy sites and Palestinian neighborhoods. More recently, the U.S. sent a senior delegation to Israel, Ramallah, Egypt, and Jordan to de-escalate the situation. The visiting diplomats indicated that the U.S. expressed “the need for all parties to call and work for calm, especially in Jerusalem, and our mutual commitment to a two-state solution.”

Many lessons can be drawn from previous tensions leading to violence. The 11-day war of May 2021 was particularly instructive. It demonstrated that a match lit in Jerusalem can ignite fire far beyond. More broadly, it was a reminder that such matches are scattered way beyond Jerusalem. All this leads to one overarching conclusion: much as the issue of the Status Quo regarding Jerusalem’s holiest site cannot be ignored, so too can’t the Palestinian question be bypassed. Rhetorical commitment to the Status Quo, much like to the two-state solution, must be backed by action. This lesson applies to the U.S. discourse and conduct as much as to anyone else’s. As demonstrated time and again, including in May 2021 and April 2022, looking the other way is not an option. On both these recent occasions, nothing short of U.S. presidential intervention proved sufficient. If Washington wishes to free the president of such burdens, it must empower its diplomats to tend to the Israeli-Palestinian arena in a more robust and regular manner, with a view to reaching understandings on a political horizon or end game definition. Egypt and Jordan are ready and willing to assist in this important undertaking, however long and demanding it is likely to prove. 

Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem
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About the Authors

Nimrod Novik

Nimrod Novik is Israel Policy Forum’s Israel fellow. The former senior advisor on foreign policy to the late Shimon Peres, Novik is currently a senior associate at the Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF) and is a member of the Executive Committee at Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS). In addition to Israeli security and political circles, Novik maintains close contacts with the Egyptian intelligence community, Jordanian security establishment, Palestinian political leadership, and Saudi security experts, as well as with senior U.S., European, U.N., and other relevant officials dealing with Middle East policy.

Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha

Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha is a senior political consultant based in the West Bank. Currently, he heads a private think tank in Ramallah, the Horizon Center for Political Studies and Media Outreach. Mr. Dalalsha’s former role as senior political advisor at the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem spanned two decades. He has been named the State Department’s Foreign Service National of the Year for outstanding political analysis/reporting and extraordinary networking/outreach three times throughout his career. Dalalsha has played an integral role in peace negotiations across the Middle East, including the 2014 ceasefire negotiations held in Cairo, in addition to other  initiatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Farah Bdour

Farah has been the Programs Director at the Amman Center for Peace and Development (ACPD) since 2012. ACPD is a Jordanian thinktank that engages in innovative, relevant, high-quality research and provides policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers, public leaders, and the strategic community, both in Jordan and abroad.

She is the Director of Seeds of Peace Program in Jordan since 2015, having first attended the Seeds of Peace Camp in Maine as a Jordanian Delegation Leader in 2014. Seeds of Peace is an American NGO that works on equipping exceptional youth and educators with the skills and relationships to work in solidarity across lines of difference to create more just and inclusive societies.

She is also part of The Middle East Training Team at Bosserman Center for Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University; one of the largest academic, practice, and research-based centers in the U.S. that provides innovative and impactful training at the local, national, and international levels for graduate and undergraduate students.

A certified mediator who writes reports about current regional conflicts and has been published in numerous research institute journals.

Hesham Youssef

Ambassador Hesham Youssef was a career diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt. From 2014-2019, he served as assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian, Cultural and Social Affairs of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and completed his term in July 2019. From 2001-2014, he served as a senior official in the Arab League, as Official Spokesman and later the Chief of Staff to Secretary General Amr Moussa from 2003- 2011. From 2012-2014, Ambassador Youssef was a Senior Advisor to the Secretary General of the Arab League, Dr. Nabil Elaraby, on issues pertaining to crisis management as well as the reform of the Arab League.