WASHINGTON – It was a week that emphasized the fragility of the situation in the West Bank, and the limited ability of the US to stabilize it, three weeks ahead of Ramadan.
On Sunday morning, it seemed that the sides were trying to find a formula to reduce tensions, as Israeli and Palestinian officials discussed the resumption of security coordination and the brief suspension of West Bank settlement announcements during a rare meeting that Jordan’s King Abdullah hosted in Aqaba on Sunday.
The rare Aqaba summit
The rare summit took place, with Egyptian and US participation, as officials from the five governments pushed to halt the escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence and prevent an even sharper outbreak during the month of Ramadan, which begins on March 22.
A joint communique put out by the five governments after the summit stated that Israel and the PA “confirmed their joint readiness and commitment to work immediately to end unilateral measures for a period of three-to-six months.”
It added, “This includes an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months, and to stop authorization of any outposts for six months.” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken lauded the meeting as an important step forward.
However, just a few hours later, the Palestinian shooting attack in the West Bank, which claimed the lives of two brothers during the summit, and the following rampage by settler vigilantes that left one Palestinian dead, 30 homes damaged, and dozens of cars torched, underscored the urgent need to restore calm.
Later on Sunday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the US “condemns [the] violence in the West Bank, including the terrorist attack that killed two Israelis, and settler violence, which resulted in the killing of one Palestinian, injuries to over 100 others, and the destruction of extensive property.”
The US continued to stay highly engaged with the situation throughout the week, as State Department’s special representative for Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr, visited Huwara and called for Israel to take action against vigilante attacks. US Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, said that settler violence is “causing an enormous amount of pain.”
“I do not think any Israeli would be proud to see settlers burning cars and smashing windows; that doesn’t make any of us proud or happy under any circumstance,” Nides said when he spoke briefly at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
The US is increasingly vocal
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and the Region program at the US Institute of Peace, said that “in the past couple of weeks we’ve witnessed the administration getting increasingly vocal and more diplomatically engaged on this issue, as the hope for de-escalation expressed by Secretary Blinken during his January trip has failed to materialize.
“We’ve seen rare joint statements with European allies, and at the UN, denouncing settlement decisions,” she noted. “There’s been an Aqaba meeting held in partnership with Jordan and Egypt aimed at generating Israeli and Palestinian cooperation to prevent deterioration. And in the past couple of days, in the wake of the Palestinian terrorist attack that killed 2 Israelis, and the subsequent raid of terror and destruction on the Palestinian town of Huwara by Israeli settlers, we’ve heard US officials call for legal accountability for violence committed by both sides, and a denouncement of an Israeli minister’s words as ‘repugnant incitement,’” she said.
“Along with multiple senior US administration official visits, this is not business as usual, but neither is the pace, intensity and fragility of developments on the ground,” Kurtzer-Ellenbogen emphasized. “All eyes had been trained on keeping things calm in Jerusalem as Ramadan and Passover are set to coincide in the coming weeks. But the tinder is so dry that the concern now is for preventing an explosion even earlier.”
She went on to say that “no doubt the administration is hoping that signs of its patience wearing thin with unchecked provocations will force a modicum of self-control, and that perhaps the reality of rapid deterioration will force the parties into restraint postures of their own accord. But bottom line: the best-laid plans of this administration for not getting dragged into Israeli-Palestinian mediation or de-escalation seem unrealistic.”
“Violence will always pull the US back in,” Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said. “The question now is not whether the administration will walk away, but whether its current pace and posture of diplomacy and denunciation can succeed in containing the sparks, or whether it will find itself fighting a five-alarm fire.”
ELLIOTT ABRAMS is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, DC. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor in the administration of President George W. Bush, where he supervised US policy in the Middle East for the White House.
He said that the Aqaba meetings “were a good effort” but “may not bring the level of violence down.”
“Israel’s policy is to strengthen the PA, but that policy has not worked for years now.”Elliott Abrams
“Israel’s policy is to strengthen the PA, but that policy has not worked for years now,” Abrams said. “The PA has little ability to stop attacks coming from individuals or gangs. The US should certainly urge Israel to punish settler violence, but if terrorist attacks increase, settler violence will likely increase too.”
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said that “American engagement with Israel should be expected. However, finger-wagging without constructive solutions is not the way forward. Successive administrations have learned this lesson.”
“The bulk of the violence stems from a strategic decision undertaken by Hamas and its patron in Tehran to export unrest to the West Bank,” he said. “US sanctions designations of top Hamas figures involved in this activity could help. Similarly, sanctions against Iranian figures could send a good message. Apart from that, an engagement that helps spur greater functionality within the Palestinian Authority is urgently needed.
“The PA lacks both leadership and credibility,” he said. “Sending American officials to meet with Mahmoud Abbas is not enough. Credible plans for succession, fighting corruption, and bringing order to pockets of chaos are necessities. Without them, the West Bank government could collapse.”
The US should pressure both sides
According to Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the US could quietly press each side to act on the specific steps each promised to take at Aqaba.
“The problem is that the environment has greatly deteriorated since Aqaba because of the murder of three Israelis and the actions of extremist settlers who carried out a pogrom in Huwara, killing one Palestinian and torching dozens of homes and cars,” said Ross, who previously he served two years as special assistant to President Barack Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and a year as special adviser to secretary of state Hillary Clinton
“Now the administration has to ask itself basic questions: Can it press the Palestinians to resume security cooperation? Are PA security forces willing or even capable of acting, given the environment, especially after the settler rampage in Huwara? Is anything even possible on the Palestinian side without thoroughgoing reform to deal with the corruption and dysfunction of the PA – and give its security forces a reason to stand up for it and for the reimposition of law and order?” Ross wondered.
“As for Israel, can it follow through on promises of restraint, given Palestinian calls for revenge? Can Israel stop extremist settlers from attacking Palestinians, which will undermine any PA impulse to cooperate? And, how anxious will the administration be to act at all to try to help or contain the current situation when a senior Israeli minister calls for erasing Huwara, and members in the governing coalition in the Knesset say that the Huwara [rampage] is a good thing?” Ross added.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.