Far-right ministers blast five-way meeting

Netanyahu rushes to deny settlement freeze announced after Aqaba summit

Joint communiqué says Jerusalem won’t discuss new West Bank units for 4 months, authorize outposts for 6 months, but PM, Hanegbi insist ‘there is no change in Israeli policy’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses the Hawara terror attack, February 26, 2023 (screenshot/PMO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses the Hawara terror attack, February 26, 2023 (screenshot/PMO)

Israel committed to halting new settlement projects Sunday during a summit in Aqaba, according to a joint communiqué issued after the meeting, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly denied there would be any construction freeze over the Green Line.

Israel agreed to “stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorization of any outposts for six months,” said the statement after the five-way meeting.

A senior official confirmed that Israel had told its interlocutors that there would be no additional announcements about settlement construction in the coming months.

But hours after the joint statement was released, Netanyahu tweeted that “the building and authorization in Judea and Samaria will continue according to the original planning and building schedule, with no change,” using the biblical term for the West Bank.

“There is not and will not be any freeze,” he continued.

National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi insisted too that “there is no change in Israeli policy.”

Then-Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi in Gush Etzion in the West Bank, December 24, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“In the coming months Israel will authorize nine outposts and will approve 9,500 new housing units in Judea and Samaria,” Hanegbi said in a statement. “There is no settlement freeze or change in the status quo on the Temple Mount, and there is no limitation on IDF activities.”

The senior official said that the Israeli delegation, headed by Hanegbi and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar, stressed in the meeting that the recognition of nine West Bank outposts will proceed, as will the construction of 9,500 new housing units in the West Bank.

According to the joint readout, Israel and the Palestinian Authority also agreed to deescalate tensions and prevent further violence ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The two sides agreed to “immediately work to end unilateral measures for a period of 3-6 months,” said the readout of the meeting.

A  regional security commission will be established to prevent an escalation in violence ahead of Ramadan, a senior Israeli official announced after the summit. Egypt will host the next summit in Sharm El Sheikh before the holy month, which begins in late March.

The commission will look to resume security coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and will examine PA forces’ ability to fight terrorism in the West Bank.

A Palestinian faces an Israeli military vehicle during a raid in the West Bank city of Nablus, on February 22, 2023. (Zain Jaafar / AFP)

The summit, hosted by Jordan’s King Abdullah in Aqaba on the Red Sea coast, was attended by Israel, the PA, Egypt, Jordan and the US, amid rapidly escalating violence in the West Bank.

On Sunday, as the talks were taking place, two Israeli brothers were killed in a terror shooting in the northern West Bank of Huwara. Settlers rioted later that evening in response, with the Palestinians alleging that one person was killed and dozens were injured.

On Wednesday, 11 Palestinians were killed and more than 80 wounded in a gun battle when Israeli troops raided the city of Nablus in the West Bank to arrest terror operatives. Palestinian terror groups said at least seven of those killed were their operatives. Another three were confirmed to have been civilians.

In this December 10, 2020 file photo, released by the Royal Hashemite Court, Jordan’s King Abdullah II gives a speech during the inauguration of the 19th Parliament’s non-ordinary session, in Amman Jordan. (Yousef Allan/The Royal Hashemite Court via AP, File)

A separate committee dealing with confidence-building economic measures between Israel and the Palestinians will also be established, according to the Israeli official.

Coalition discontent

Preempting Netanyahu’s rush to deny a settlement freeze, far-right members of his governing coalition rejected the outcome of the summit.

Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry, tweeted that he “has no clue” what was said at the “superfluous summit” in Jordan. He pledged that there would not be any freezing of settlement construction for even one day.

“What happened in Jordan (if it happened), will remain in Jordan,” concurred National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

Religious Zionism leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (standing), one of the main advocates of a High Court override law, together with Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a hearing in the Supreme Court, March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But senior US officials stressed the importance of the talks.

“Today’s meeting in Aqaba is a positive step for Israelis and Palestinians,” tweeted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “It’s crucial for the parties to follow through on steps to de-escalate tensions and restore calm.”

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement that “we recognize that this meeting was a starting point and that there is much work to do over the coming weeks and months to build a stable and prosperous future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Implementation will be critical.”

Israeli security forces gather at the entrance to east Jerusalem’s Shuafat refugee camp following a stabbing attack on February 13, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The summit was also aimed at boosting Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and solidifying understandings that had been reached earlier this week regarding the steps that the two sides would take in order to deescalate tensions, a Palestinian source familiar with the matter said.

A nearly year-long Israeli anti-terror offensive in the West Bank has left over 200 Palestinians dead — the vast majority in clashes with Israeli troops but some under more questionable circumstances — including 60 killed since the start of the year, straining already frayed ties.

The campaign was launched last year to stem a rash of deadly attacks on Israelis: 31 were killed in 2022, and this year alone, 11 have been killed in Palestinian terror attacks in East Jerusalem — 10 civilians and one Border Police officer — in addition to the two brothers killed Sunday in Huwara.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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