Dialogue the best hope for Israeli-Palestinian de-escalation
On March 19, senior political and security officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan and the US met in the Egyptian city of Sharm El-Sheikh to address escalating violence across Israel and the West Bank. Three weeks earlier, a similar session, convened at the request of Jordan, took place in nearby Aqaba.
With nearly 90 Palestinians and 14 Israelis killed since the beginning of this year, the meetings were held amid fears that a convergence of Islamic, Jewish and Christian religious celebrations next month could provoke even greater violence.
As someone who has negotiated ceasefires between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, I can attest that de-escalation will be ineffective unless it is paired with plans to address the economic, social and political dimensions of the crisis. Legitimate concerns must be addressed within a shared narrative that encourages stepping back from the brink. Only then can meaningful de-escalation occur, creating the necessary space for political resolution.
In Aqaba, the intent was there. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to abstain temporarily from unilateral actions that might exacerbate the situation. For Palestinians, this meant pausing their diplomatic efforts within UN bodies, while Israel committed to a four-month halt to discussions about new settlement units and a six-month pause on outpost authorizations.
The agreements reached in Sharm El-Sheikh expanded upon these initial measures and now not only include calls for de-escalation but also outline a framework for action. If implemented, the following three points from the Sharm El-Sheikh communique could serve as crucial stepping stones for progress.
Firstly, the agreement to create a mechanism for strengthening the Palestinian economy must be followed by the swift implementation of several long-standing projects for which the US has consistently advocated. These initiatives include extending the operating hours of the Allenby crossing to promote Palestinian trade through Jordan, improving 4G mobile telecommunications services and electronic VAT receipts.
In the long term, both the Israeli and the Palestinian economies would benefit from updating and modernizing the economic agreements signed as part of the Oslo framework, known as the Paris Protocol. New trade arrangements that include crossings and customs areas would also need to be agreed upon. Removing non-customs restrictions and obstacles to the movement of Palestinian goods, and closing the many fiscal leakages that have emerged through the years, are just some of the important measures that could be taken.
Secondly, the communique’s provision to “significantly enhance the fiscal situation” of the PA carries considerable importance. The authority has faced a relentless fiscal crisis due to a mix of domestic and external factors that have severely limited the government’s capacity to borrow funds, invest in development and, ultimately, pay salaries.
While these reforms would address public payroll reductions, fiscal leakages, corruption and inefficiencies, the immediate priority is to prevent the financial collapse of the PA, which would lead to unemployment for tens of thousands of people and heighten tensions across the West Bank.
The first step on the path toward political resolution is for Israeli and Palestinian security officials to agree that without coordination, the current crisis will only worsen.
Nickolay E. Mladenov
This could be achieved through two means: Israel facilitating grants or loans to the authority, backed by future tax revenues; and a reduction of the handling fees at the Allenby crossing.
Additionally, the Palestinian government must reform its controversial prisoner payment system, which faces increasing scrutiny from the US and the EU. This is essential to regain access to some of its tax income, currently withheld under Israeli law, and potential US funding that has been withheld by the Taylor Force Act.
Although these steps are challenging, and will face resistance from large domestic constituencies, they are both necessary and long overdue.
Thirdly, the Sharm El-Sheikh communique calls for a joint mechanism to counter violence, incitement, and inflammatory statements and actions. Regardless of whether a formal mechanism is established or both parties convene informally, it is essential that conversations begin on these subjects.
The immediate focus of any discussion should be twofold. Firstly, the talks should emphasize the enhancement of security coordination and the empowerment of Palestinian security forces to assume their duties and responsibilities effectively in their areas of operation, particularly in Area A of the West Bank, which falls under its security control.
This would alleviate the need for Israel to take unilateral action and undermine the PA’s control in these areas. However, it is a difficult step for the authority’s security forces to take, as they are reluctant to act in places such as Jenin and Nablus due to fears of popular backlash.
Secondly, improved coordination and communication in tense situations could help mitigate inflammatory statements and actions by all parties involved. The US, Egypt and Jordan have the potential to play significant roles in facilitating such dialogue.
There remains some uncertainty over whether the positive momentum created by the Aqaba and Sharm El-Sheikh meetings can yield tangible results and withstand the pressures, either from the coinciding religious holidays of Ramadan, Passover and Easter, which all occur in April this year, or from the radicals who are intent on escalation.
The true challenge lies in executing the steps agreed upon during the meetings. This necessitates not high-level international events but, rather, diligent efforts in daily communication and a mutual understanding that without such measures, tensions will continue to rise and the situation might rapidly spiral out of control.
The likelihood of all or some of these measures being implemented remains an open question. Yet given that the Middle East Quartet, which united the US with Russia, the EU and the UN to address such situations, is defunct, it is reassuring that Washington is now engaging with Egypt and Jordan in a new format that could bring Israelis and Palestinians together.
Obstacles might arise but the first step on the path toward political resolution is for Israeli and Palestinian security officials to agree that without coordination, the current crisis will only worsen.
- Nickolay E. Mladenov is the director-general of the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi and a Segal Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twitter: @nmladenov. ©Syndication Bureau