Israel and Jordan have committed to a series of “specific and practical” steps to reduce spiraling tensions over Jerusalem holy sites and the Palestinians have pledged to curb incitement and violence, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday.
However, he refused to describe what measures were agreed to and Jordan, which recalled its ambassador to Israel last week to protest an Israeli crackdown on protesters at the al-Aqsa mosque, said pointedly it was not yet ready to return the envoy. Perhaps more telling, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did not attend a meeting among Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Kerry said it was “not the right moment” for Abbas and Netanyahu to meet.
While insisting that the steps to be taken must be kept secret to avoid misunderstandings, Kerry said they would become evident in the coming days if all sides keep to their word.
After the nearly three-hour Kerry-Netanyahu-Abdullah session , which followed separate talks between Kerry and Abbas, the top US diplomat praised all three leaders for their willingness to restore calm amid deteriorating conditions on the ground and increasingly acrimonious complaints between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Netanyahu has accused Abbas of intentionally aggravating the situation and encouraging Palestinian attacks against Israelis, while Abbas has accused Netanyahu’s government of trying to provoke a religious war.
Kerry said he and Abbas discussed “constructive steps, real steps, not rhetoric, but real steps people can take to de-escalate the situation” and that the Palestinian leader “strongly expressed his firm commitment to non-violence and that he will do everything possible to stop violence and change the climate.”
Meanwhile, he said Netanyahu and King Abdullah, who serves as custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, had agreed on a series of measures that would “instill confidence” among all the parties.
“We are not going to lay out each practical step,” Kerry told reporters at a news conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. “The important thing is that they are done. Not all of it can happen overnight. Not every message will reach every person immediately, but the leadership is committed.”
At the same time, he said nothing is guaranteed.
“Actions are what matter, not just words. I heard words, they were expressed sincerely,” he said, stressing that actions were needed. “We will see in the days to come.”
US officials had hoped to get some indication from Jordan that it was ready to consider returning its ambassador to Israel, but Judeh made clear this would depend on what Israel does.
“Recalling our ambassador for consultation was a very clear signal that something has to be done to check these actions that are causing great concern,” he said. “With intensively diplomacy we have seen a commitment on the part of Israel to respect and maintain the status quo and respect the Jordanian custodianship (of the holy sites). We have to wait to see if this is done.”
Jordan is one of just two Arab countries at peace with Israel. Serving as the custodian of the Muslim holy sites of Jerusalem and with significant influence in the West Bank, Jordan plays a key moderating and mediating role between Israel and the Palestinians. Jordan borders the West Bank and has a large Palestinian population.
Long-simmering tensions have boiled over into violent demonstrations and deadly Palestinian attacks that have killed six people in recent weeks. The fatal shooting by police last weekend of an Israeli Arab protester in northern Israel as he appeared to be walking away from the officer has worsened the atmosphere.
Netanyahu has insisted that Israel has no plans to change the arrangements at the holy site, but his pledges have done little to bring calm.
On Wednesday, Israeli authorities gave preliminary approval to build 200 homes in a Jewish area of east Jerusalem, a move that threatened to push Israelis and Palestinians deeper into conflict after weeks of unrest. The US says it is concerned by the new settlements, which all but certainly will scuttle prospects of re-opening peace talks any time soon.
The collapse last April of a US-brokered peace settlement, Israel’s war last summer in the Gaza Strip against the Islamic militant group Hamas, and the continued Israeli settlement construction in east Jerusalem have added to the distrust.