Confusion over Palestinian-Israeli talks is helping no-one

Tensions in the West Bank are boiling over and unclear communication following a meeting of security officials in Aqaba puts de-escalation at risk

A Palestinian man walks between scorched cars in a scrapyard, in the West Bank town of Hawara on Monday. Scores of Israeli settlers went on a violent rampage, setting cars and homes on fire after two settlers were killed by a Palestinian gunman. Palestinian officials say one man was killed and four others were badly wounded. AP
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Critical security talks between Palestinian and Israeli officials held in Jordan at the weekend provided initial optimism that direct engagement and negotiations are back on the table in the Middle East’s longest-running conflict. Jordan, Egypt and the US had also participated in the talks, hosted in the Jordanian city of Aqaba. By Monday morning, however, confusion over their outcome had already set in.

A joint statement released by the White House on Sunday said Israel had agreed to suspend illegal settlement activity in occupied Palestinian territory.

“This includes an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorisation of any outposts for six months,” the statement said.

However, Israel's National Security Adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, said on Sunday that there had been no policy change, and that the government would legalise nine outposts and approve 9,500 housing units in the West Bank in the coming months.

This came before a comment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tweeted that Jewish settlements would continue “according to the original planning and construction schedule, without any changes”.

“There is and will not be any freeze,” he added.

Israeli soldiers speak with settlers in the town of Huwara near Nablus in the occupied West Bank on Monday. AFP

The comments risk extinguishing what was already a very faint glimmer of hope for de-escalation. If a public commitment can be reversed almost immediately, it also leaves Palestinian negotiators with little to show for their efforts.

It is difficult to deny that the settlements make daily life for many Palestinians unendurable, fuelling grievance and extremism. They also act as a lightning rod for conflict, as they did on Sunday, when two settlers were shot dead in the West Bank town of Huwara, leading to a wave of violence in the area. The violence peaked when some settlers appear to have set fire to Palestinian homes.

Suspending discussion of new settlements would have sent a signal to Palestinians that the Israeli authorities wanted to at least establish a breathing space, particularly as tensions rise ahead of Ramadan, which will overlap with the Jewish Passover holiday in April. This can be a particularly precarious time – clashes during Ramadan in 2021 at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the West Bank escalated into an 11-day war.

But with several members of the Israeli Cabinet drawing much of their support from within the settler movement, it is difficult at this stage to see how even limited change to the government’s settlement policy can be secured.

The uncertainty over what commitments, if any, were made in Aqaba also threatens to suck the air out of whatever engagement process remains. Waiting in the wings, too, are the militants of Hamas, who have condemned the Palestinian Authority (PA) for taking part in the Jordan meeting. The government of President Mahmoud Abbas also faces the rise of new armed groups outside of PA control, such as Lion’s Den in Jenin, which are adding an uncontrollable element to a deteriorating security situation.

The pervading sense of despair in the occupied Palestinian territories shows no sign of abating. It undermines attempts to reach what many regard as a realistic, just and attainable settlement: a two-state solution. Just over a month ago, a survey of more than 2,000 people published by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Research found that only 33 per cent of Palestinians and 34 per cent of Israeli Jews said they support a two-state solution, a significant drop from data collected in 2020.

This is a time for allies of the Palestinian people and Israel alike to redouble their efforts to facilitate dialogue. But for dialogue to be of any consequence, it must be clear, it must be sincere and it must lead to change. Dashing people’s hopes is not just a temporary setback. It can become a long-lasting one, too.

Published: February 28, 2023, 3:00 AM