Mixed signals from the Middle East

Jewish Light Editorial

In the midst of all of the back and forth among the White House, mainstream media and Congress — alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the pending vote on Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court and a host of other issues — the long-simmering pot of the Middle East may be under the radar. But a number of developments — some more hopeful than others — deserve attention.

• The fragile 2014 cease fire that ended 50 days of fighting between Israel and the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, was threatened by the “quiet assassination” of a top Hamas official as he sat in his car in a garage.  Mazen Fuqaha was a commander of Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades. 

Hamas officials blame Israel’s Mossad, Israel’s spy agency; Israeli officials have not commented other than to say that Fuqaha was involved in planning attacks against Israel.

•  In rapid succession, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the construction of the first new Jewish settlement in the West Bank for the first time in more than 20 years—and then almost immediately announced what Isabel Kershner in The New York Times described as “a new, if ambiguous settlement policy” instituted “out of consideration for President Trump.”  

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According to the Israeli announcement, the new policy would “significantly rein in the footprint” of the settlements, allowing construction within all its existing settlements but limiting, “wherever possible,” their expansion into new territory.

The specific new West Bank settlement that was approved was designed by Netanyahu to compensate 40 families evicted from the illegal hilltop outpost of Amona by building them a new community. 

The seemingly contradictory actions — approving the building of a new settlement for the residents of Amona while at the same time stating that Israel will cut back on the footprint of the settlements — are telling. They reflect the fact that Netanyahu had to twist himself into a pretzel to keep his direct promise to the Amona residents as well as the respect the Trump administration’s specific and public request that he limit settlement activity.  

Netanyahu also has to placate hardliners within his ruling coalition to prevent a collapse of his government.

• Meanwhile, some 22 members of the League of Arab States met in Amman, Jordan, and offered a possible glimmer of hope that they have reached a more moderate consensus towards accepting the reality and permanence of the Jewish State of Israel in their midst.

In a joint statement the United Nations and the Arab League officially reiterated support for a two-state solution—for an Arab State of Palestine to exist in peace and security with the State of Israel.  In addition, President Donald Trump’s international envoy told officials at the Arab Summit that Trump believes an Israeli- Palestinian peace deal is possible and would “reverberate positively throughout the region and the world.” 

The U.S. envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said his meetings with Arab foreign ministers, “focused on how tangible progress could be made toward advancing Middle East peace,” but that a deal could not be imposed.

The gathering, hosted by King Abdullah II of Jordan, drew leaders from 21 Arab states plus the Palestine Authority.  In their final statement, the leaders “relaunched an Arab peace plan that offers Israel full normalization in exchange for Palestinian statehood,” according to a story by the Associated Press.

 Compare the Arab reiteration of a commitment to offer Israel “full normalization” to the infamous Arab League Summit in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1967, at which the final communique told Israel: “no peace, no negotiations and no recognition,” In a remarkable reversal of their deep-seated official hostility by Arab leaders to the Jewish State of Israel, the Arab League now recognizes it has no reason to fear an attack from Israel — but that Israel shares their concern over the existential threat that a potentially nuclear Iran poses to them and Israel.

 Yes, many obstacles remain, not the least of which is the essential weakness of the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas, the control of Gaza by the terrorist group Hamas and the factions of Netanyahu’s coalition who oppose an independent Palestinian state.

But despite these very real and legitimate concerns, Israel should pursue every opportunity to come to an agreement with the Palestinians for a two-state solution. The result could be a welcome new chapter of peace and cooperation in the strife-torn Middle East.