Dialogue offers hope for de-escalation of Israeli-Palestinian crisis
As someone who has negotiated ceasefires between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Nickolay E. Mladenov writes that de-escalation alone will be ineffective unless paired with plans to address the economic, social, and political dimensions of the crisis.
Senior political and security officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Egypt, Jordan, and the United States met on 19 March in Sharm El Sheikh to address escalating violence across Israel and the West Bank. Three weeks earlier, a similar session was held in nearby Aqaba, convened at Jordan’s request.
With nearly 90 Palestinians and 14 Israelis killed since the beginning of the year, the meetings were held amid fear 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 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 a political resolution.
In Aqaba, the intent was there. Both Israel and the PA agreed to abstain temporarily from unilateral actions that might exacerbate the situation.
For Palestinians, this means pausing their diplomatic efforts at United Nations bodies, while Israel has committed to a four-month halt on discussions of new settlement units and a six-month stop on outpost authorizations.
The agreements reached in Sharm El Sheikh expanded upon these initial measures and now include not only 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.
First, 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 range from extending the operating hours of the Allenby crossing to promote Palestinian trade through Jordan, to improving mobile services (4G), bonded warehouses, and electronic VAT receipts.
Over the long term, both Israeli and 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, customs areas, and warehouses 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 can be taken.
Second, the communique’s provision to “significantly enhance the fiscal situation” of the PA carries considerable importance. The PA has faced a relentless fiscal crisis due to a mix of domestic and external factors, which has severely limited the government’s capacity to borrow funds, invest in development, and ultimately, pay salaries.
While these reforms would address public payroll reduction, fiscal leakages, corruption, and inefficiencies, the immediate priority is to prevent the PA’s financial collapse, which would lead to unemployment for tens of thousands and heightened tensions across the West Bank.
This can be achieved through two means: Israel facilitating grants or loans to the PA, backed by its future tax revenues; and through a reduction of 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 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.
Third, the Sharm El Sheikh communique calls for a joint mechanism to counter violence, incitement, inflammatory statements, and actions. Regardless of whether a formal mechanism is established or both parties convene informally, it’s essential that conversations begin on these subjects.
The immediate focus of any discussion should be twofold. On one hand, talks should emphasize enhancing security coordination and empowering 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, this is a difficult step for the PA security forces, as they are reluctant to act in places like Jenin and Nablus due to fears of popular backlash.
On the other hand, 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 a significant role in facilitating such dialogue.
Uncertainty remains whether the positive momentum created at the Aqaba and Sharm El Sheikh gatherings can yield tangible results and withstand pressures – either from the coinciding Holy Days of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter, which all fall in April, or from radicals who are intent on escalation.
Yet, 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 climb, and the situation may rapidly spiral out of control.
The implementation of all or some of these measures remains an open question. Yet given the now-defunct Middle East Quartet, which previously united the US with Russia, the EU, and the UN to address such situations, it’s reassuring that Washington is engaging with Egypt and Jordan in a new format that brings Israelis and Palestinians together.
Obstacles may 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 deepen.