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Jordan, Egypt and Israel working to manage the Palestinian conflict

Sep 21,2021 - Last updated at Sep 21,2021

The post-Netanyahu era is heralding a state of rapprochement between Israel, on the one hand, and Jordan and Egypt, on the other. It could also bring some badly needed benefits for the ailing Palestinian Authority (PA) as well. Since he managed to form a broad coalition government last June, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was able to mend ties with neighboring Jordan and Egypt while keeping his allies at bay.

Under Benyamin Netanyahu relations with Jordan dipped to an unprecedented level while ties with Egypt witnessed little improvement. And when Donald Trump took over, Netanyahu saw an opportunity to build an alliance with Gulf countries at the expense of Israel’s strategic ties with its two Arab neighbours. Relations with Jordan had reached a low point when Netanyahu announced readiness to annex the Jordan Valley last year. King Abdullah warned that the two-decades-old peace treaty could be affected if Israel went ahead with annexation.

Peace talks with the Palestinians had stopped for almost ten years and Trump’s proposed peace plan was rejected by both Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan. The Netanyahu era represented a bleak phase for the prospects of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Not that Bennett’s arrival would make much difference. But his allies in the coalition government may change the current trajectory. Last August Israel’s Defence minister and coalition partner Benny Gantz had a rare meeting with Abbas in Ramallah; the first official encounter between a high ranking Israeli official and Abbas in almost ten years. The meeting focused on improving the economic status of Palestinians in the West Bank and did not cover political aspects.

On three separate occasions Israel announced that Bennett, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Gantz had visited Amman and met with King Abdullah between July and August. That indicated a major shift in relations and an Israeli keenness to improve ties with Jordan after many years of tensions. Talks focused on bilateral relations, especially economic cooperation, and on supporting the Palestinian Authority. An informed source told this writer that Jordan now considered relations with Israel at their best ever.

Egypt too sought to capitalise on its diplomatic success in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas last May. Its mediation role has improved its status with the Biden administration as well as with Israel. Last week Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi invited Bennett to Sharm El Sheikh; a move that was seen as a landmark in bilateral ties. The talks focused on Egypt’s role in reaching a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas that could include prisoners’ exchange.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid had visited Cairo before and on Sunday had a phone call with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukri. Egypt said the talks focused on reviving peace talks while Lapid’s office pointed to an offer to allow major Gaza reconstruction projects in return for mutual security.

Jordan and Egypt are coordinating their positions with regards to Gaza and the Palestinian Authority. Earlier this month Egypt hosted both Abdullah and Abbas in a bid to support the Palestinian Authority and its president. But a source told this writer that both leaders put pressure on Abbas to carry out much needed reforms and appoint a deputy. Abbas’ popularity had dipped following last May’s showdown between Israel and Hamas and the killing of a Palestinian activist while in PA’s custody. Abbas’ indefinite postponement of presidential and legislative elections had polarised Palestinians further. And Egyptian efforts to conclude reconciliation between Fatteh and Hamas appear to have reached a dead end.

While Jordan and Egypt call publicly for the resumption of peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, it is clear that Bennett is in no position to launch such a process. He is ideologically against a Palestinian state and his coalition will fall apart if he initiates a political process. On the other hand, he and the US administration are in agreement that the daily livelihood of Palestinians in the West Bank must be improved. Lapid is pushing for a deal to allow major reconstruction projects in Gaza in return for a long-term truce with Hamas. Beyond that he and his boss hope to shift attention from the West Bank to Gaza as the future Palestinian entity.

For Jordan and Egypt managing the conflict at this stage is a delicate effort. Egypt hopes to endear itself to the Biden administration by helping Hamas and Israel reach a long-term truce that could include a prisoners’ swap. Such a deal would embolden Hamas’ position in Gaza and among Palestinians. On the other hand, all parties want the PA to survive while preparing for post-Abbas era.

While a political process remains elusive at this point, the Palestinians can expect a major improvement in their daily livelihood. This is the most Israel can offer at this stage and the least Jordan and Egypt can support as they seek to manage the conflict in the absence and a genuine political process.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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