Blair talks up prospects of Israel-Sunni normalization
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Blair talks up prospects of Israel-Sunni normalization

Much will depend on Israel's response to the Arab Peace Initiative, says ex-UK PM; Netanyahu reportedly told Sissi last week he wants to make progress

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with then Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair, on June 17, 2014 (Youtube screen cap)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with then Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair, on June 17, 2014 (Youtube screen cap)

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Sunni Muslim countries are ready to normalize ties with Israel should Israel negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative.

The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed in 2002 and reaffirmed in recent years, calls for full normalization between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Golan Heights. It would include land swaps, the establishment of a Palestinian state and a negotiated agreement on Palestinian refugees. Israel has never formally responded to the proposal.

Blair’s comments, made at a conference in London on Tuesday, follow statements by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi last week calling for a restarted peace process.

Until last year, Blair served as an envoy for the Quartet, an alliance of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia that seeks Israeli-Palestinian peace. In recent weeks, he had unsuccessfully worked with the ruling Israeli Likud party and opposition Zionist Union party to form a unity government that would advance the peace process, according to the Haaretz newspaper. He also worked with Sissi to support the talks.

“Provided the Israeli government is ready to commit to a discussion around the Arab peace initiative … it would be possible to have some steps of normalization along the way to give confidence to this process,” Blair said, according to Haaretz. “With the new leadership in the region today that is possible. A lot will depend on the response of the Israeli government to President Sissi’s initiative and to the Arab Peace Initiative, and to whatever steps the Israelis are ready to take.”

Added Blair: “We need to broaden the support base for the peace process … We need the help of the region. The door between Israel and the Arab states is now closed and the key is progress with the Palestinians.”

An Israel TV report last week said Arab leaders were prepared to consider changes to the initiative if necessary. and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was said to have told Sissi he seeks to make progress on regional ties.

Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al-Faisal and Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's former national security adviser, share a platform at the Washington Institute, May 5, 2016 (Washington Institute screenshot)
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal and Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, share a platform at the Washington Institute, May 5, 2016 (Washington Institute screenshot)

In a rare appearance earlier this month, Netanyahu’s former security adviser and a leading Saudi figure shared a stage at a Washington think-tank to discuss regional issues at length.

A clause in the scrapped coalition agreement between the Likud party and the Zionist Union reportedly stated that the government would “relate positively” to the idea of a regional reconciliation agreement between Israel and several Arab states, as well as to certain elements of the Arab Peace Initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite that deal not taking effect, Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed his desire to maximize new “opportunities” for progress. On Wednesday, at a press conference to announce his coalition deal with Yisrael Beytenu and its leader Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu switched to English to state: “My government remains committed to pursuing peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbors. My policy has not changed. We will pursue every avenue for peace while ensuring the safety and security of our citizens.”

And Liberman also broke into English to pledge his commitment to “peace and to a final status agreement, and to understanding between us and our neighbors.”

Sissi last Tuesday proclaimed his belief that there was a “real opportunity” for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, in a speech that was reportedly part of an international effort to jump-start the moribund peace process. Those efforts also apparently included a failed effort by an alliance of foreign leaders led by Blair to secure a new peace-oriented unity government between Likud and Herzog’s Zionist Union. Herzog has said Netanyahu “ran away” from the deal. On Wednesday, he said he had risked his political future for the partnership, but Netanyahu had “blinked.”

Blair was said to have been coordinating his actions with Netanyahu, Herzog, US Secretary of State John Kerry and even Sissi.

The former UK prime minister declared his intent to renew peace efforts late last year, saying his experience and network of contacts made during eight years of diplomacy as an international envoy to the Mideast would help him.

Blair has been visiting the region every 2-3 weeks in recent months, reportedly holding multiple meetings with Herzog and Netanyahu, in which he updated them on the willingness of the Arab leaders to support a new peace initiative and to improve relations with Israel in tandem.

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