The Aqaba Joint Communique Dies in Huwwara

On Sunday, February 26, 2023, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan hosted Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, and US officials in Aqaba, Jordan to try to stem the worrisome tide of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. The rare meeting was organized at the behest of the Biden administration, which has repeatedly expressed “deep concern” at the growing violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories over the past year and at the failure of the Israeli military crackdown by both the Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu governments to effectively end the growing Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. Indeed, a United Nations tally shows that 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in 16 years, and at least 26 Israelis and 200 Palestinians were killed across Israel and the West Bank last year.

The Aqaba Joint Communique that was issued at the conclusion of the five-party discussion claims to have achieved several diplomatic outcomes pursued by the parties, including the following:

  1. Palestinians and Israelis reaffirmed their commitments to de-escalate and prevent further violence in the region, while reiterating their adherence to earlier agreements and their commitment to the pursuit of a just and lasting peace.
  2. All five parties upheld their support for the “historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem” and stressed the special custodial role played by Jordan in this regard.
  3. The Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority (PA) committed to end all unilateral measures for a period of three to six months, including an Israeli commitment “to stop discussion of any new settlement units for 4 months and to stop authorization of any outposts for 6 months.”
  4. As a follow-up to the Aqaba conference, the parties agreed to reconvene in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in March 2023.
  5. In the interim, the parties also agreed “to pursue confidence-building measures and strengthen mutual trust in order to address outstanding issues through direct dialogue.”

Although the declared objectives of the summit in Aqaba appear farfetched and quite difficult to achieve in a highly charged political environment between Israel and Palestine, some in the media seem to be giving the participants the benefit of the doubt. The Guardian, for example, reported that, “It is expected concrete steps will be taken towards restoring security cooperation in the occupied West Bank, which the PA suspended last month in the aftermath of the deadliest Israeli army raid in the area in decades.” However, reality intruded only few hours later in the West Bank town of Huwwara, where the Aqaba objectives, real or imagined, met their demise as they came up against renewed violence by Israeli settlers seeking to avenge the loss of two of their compatriots who were killed by Palestinian militants. Hundreds of rioting settlers, escorted by Israeli soldiers, conducted no less than a pogrom against civilians, killing one, injuring at least a hundred others, and burning scores of homes and cars belonging to local villagers. The settler rampage at Huwwara exposed the collusion between far-right settlers and Israel’s armed forces in a concerted effort to “crush enemies,” as instructed by Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who declared, “Our enemies need to hear a message of settlement, but also one of crushing them one by one.”

On a personal level, however, I doubt the utility of this diplomatic conference that was rushed by the US administration without adequate preparation and that was designed to essentially rescue Israel from its own foolish policies. In one of several tweets that I posted a day before the event, I referred to the summit as “both ill-conceived and ill-timed considering recent political and military decisions by the Netanyahu government, particularly its violent raids in Jenin, Nablus, and other occupied Palestinian towns.” Once the joint communique was issued on February 26th, I took the risk of tweeting that, “The words of this fanciful communique will not last till the upcoming March [follow-up] session.” I felt then, as I do today, that Aqaba was “another wasted diplomatic effort as long as the 55-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestine continues unimpeded.”

As always, Netanyahu never disappoints. He is his own worst enemy, and in the long term, an enemy of Israel as well. Before the ink even dried on the Aqaba Joint Communique, Netanyahu rushed to deny that Israel had committed to halting new settlement projects during the summit. He tweeted that “the building and authorization in [the West Bank] will continue according to the original planning and building schedule, with no change.” National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi also confirmed that “there is no change in Israeli policy.”

Frankly, Netanyahu’s words are quite clear and require little or no elucidation. However, reflecting the lack of trust between Netanyahu and his coalition allies, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has also been entrusted with unprecedented responsibilities over Jewish settlement activities, posted a tweet saying that he had “no clue what they talked or didn’t talk about in Jordan,” and that, “The one thing I do know: there will not be a freeze on construction and development in settlements, not even for one day.”

The Aqaba summit and its political failure exposed several mistakes that should have been avoided by all stakeholders in the meeting. First and foremost, the United States seems to have rushed into this summit due to its failed attempts over the past few months to reduce violence in the West Bank, which have been frustrated despite high visibility visits to Israel by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William Burns, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his aides. It was both naive and detrimental to what remains of the United States’ credibility in the region to expect the Netanyahu government to be more responsive to a public Arab summit than to bilateral American overtures, particularly a summit that was devoid of necessary preparation and arm twisting. Without meaning to underestimate their political weight, engaging Jordanian and Egyptian diplomacy in this specific manner was not an effective substitute for clear and robust diplomacy supported at the highest levels of the US government, a fact that should be clearly perceived and felt in Israel and the occupied territories.

Second, the false equivalence between the level of violent Palestinian resistance to the 55-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its daily practices is not well appreciated by all the participants in this conference. Occupation itself is the ultimate expression of violence in the case of Palestine. The persistence in equating the violence of the occupier with that of the occupied is an ever-present false premise in US policymaking in the region, one that contributes to recurrent failures. I am afraid that the Aqaba summit will remain another wasted diplomatic opportunity as long as the Israeli occupation of Palestine continues unimpeded and is, directly or indirectly, condoned by the United States.

Finally, it seems to me that the Aqaba discussion, as reflected in the joint communique, undermined its own objectives by paying lip service to core issues at the expense of highlighting short term objectives like de-escalation and the prevention of current violence on the ground. If the two sides to the conflict were indeed committed to working toward a just and lasting peace, they would instinctively and naturally minimize resorting to violence or taking any other unilateral steps that hinder their yearning for such a solution to the conflict. Clearly, the larger picture was missing in Aqaba.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: shutterstock/Kaan Uluer