Furiously rejecting all efforts to internationalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu constantly professes a burning desire for direct bilateral talks with the Palestinian Authority.
“There is no issue too complex to solve if both sides are willing to talk to each other. And I am more than willing; I am eager,” he declared last week at a joint appearance with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who came to Jerusalem to promote the French plan to convene an international peace conference in Paris.
At the same time, however, Netanyahu has often made clear that he does not believe the current PA leadership, under President Mahmoud Abbas, if left to its own devices, is prepared to take positions that would enable a peace accord and an end to the century-old conflict. Netanyahu insists that Ramallah recognize Israel as a Jewish state; Abbas and his officials say this just won’t happen. The sides are far apart on the issues of refugees and Jerusalem. And Netanyahu has castigated what he calls the “Palestinian campaign of incitement to murder Israelis” in recent months, specifying that Abbas was partly responsible for the “lone wolf” terror wave that erupted last fall.
The international community plainly shares the prime minister’s pessimism, and thus is betting on international conferences, such as the one in Paris on Friday, or resolutions at the United Nations.
But Netanyahu has a different vision. He believes, or at least purports to believe, that Israel’s nascent rapprochement with certain Sunni Arab states in the region could eventually lead to a situation in which those states pressure the Palestinians into the concessions required to reach a peace deal.
It’s the Arab Peace Initiative turned on its head.
While the Arab world promises full diplomatic relations with Israel after an accord with the Palestinians is signed, Netanyahu evidently hopes this normalization process can take place now or in the near future, and then eventually bring along with it a deal with the PA.
“The conventional wisdom for the last few decades has been that a solution to the Palestinian issues will result in improved ties between Israel and the Arab world,” Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “But there is a serious basis for thinking that, actually, the sequence is exactly the opposite — that by improving ties with the Arab states, we set the stage for a future breakthrough with the Palestinians.”
Gold has recently met with several officials from Arab countries, including those with which Israel has no formal ties.
It is in this context that one can understand Netanyahu’s statement Monday, in which he declared that the Arab Peace Initiative “includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians.”
While Netanyahu had made positive remarks about the initiative before — in 2009 he said it could “help to create an atmosphere in which overall peace is possible” — his statement Monday in the Knesset marked the first time he directly offered to negotiate with the Arab states “revisions” to the initiative to reflect the realities on the ground.
Netanyahu’s less hawkish supporters hailed the statement as a promising overture with the real potential to advance Arab-Israeli reconciliation. “The prime minister’s statement was very bold. Let’s hope that our Arab partners pick up on it and create a new environment in this region,” Gold said.
‘The prime minister’s statement was very bold. Let’s hope that our Arab partners pick up on it and create a new environment in this region’
Critics, notably including former senior PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat, dismissed it is a public relations stunt aimed at deflecting concerns over his hardline new defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, and at undercutting the Paris summit on Friday.
It may well be that the partial embrace of the Arab Peace Initiative was meant to placate Netanyahu’s critics in Washington and some European capitals. But recent statements by regional players do indicate that parts of the Arab world are interested in working with Israel with the goal of advancing peace.
On May 17, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, in a much-hailed speech, turned directly to Israelis and Palestinians, imploring them to make use of the current “real opportunity” to make peace, and offering his country’s full assistance.
A few days later, former Middle East Quartet chief Tony Blair indicated that Arab states would be willing to initiate “some steps of normalization” with Israel even before a final-status deal with the Palestinian is reached, as long as Jerusalem is “ready to commit to a discussion” of the initiative. “With the new leadership in the region today that is possible,” Blair said. “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.”
Netanyahu’s statement Monday can thus be seen as a carefully worded effort to kill two birds with one stone: He rebutted critics of Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” and at the same time showed a cautious readiness to explore opportunities for a regional approach to the peace process.
Whether this approach — regional progress first, Palestinian progress second — will win over parts of the Arab world is still unclear. To date, an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord has been regarded as the non-negotiable prerequisite to any formal normalization of ties with Israel.
On May 5, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the regime’s former security chief, shared a stage in Washington, DC, with Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security advisor — a meeting that underlined how things are beginning to change in Israel-Saudi interaction. But Prince Turki was clearly not about to radically remake the Arab world’s fundamental approach.
Adapting Netanyahu’s model, Amidror proposed to “build something in the Middle East along with countries with the same interests: fighting radical Islam, whether it is Sunni or Shiite, whether Hezbollah or the Islamic State, and then bringing the Palestinians and the Israelis to negotiate under this umbrella.”
The Saudi prince flatly rejected this approach. “The Arab Peace Initiative,” he said, “is the formula that can bring us together. But the general sees otherwise. He wants us to start cooperating with Israel, and do whatever is done in that journey, and forget about the occupation of Palestine and various other issues that deal with the daily occurrences that are taking place on the ground in Palestine, whether it is expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, whether it is the roadblocks — all the issues that you are all aware of.”
Still, in the wake of Netanyahu’s Monday statement, the Saudi foreign minister was not entirely dismissive. “It’s a little early for one to assess the seriousness of the Israeli side to begin talks based on the Arab Peace Initiative,” Adel al-Jubeir said Tuesday. “When the Israeli prime minister spoke about it, he spoke about some clauses that he considers positive, not about accepting the initiative as the basis of talks.”
Josh Teitelbaum, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies, called that a “net positive response.” The way he saw it, “They’re responding cautiously to the statement; that means they’re still in the game.”
Between the lines of al-Jubeir’s statement, suggested Teitelbaum, was the hint that they would like Netanyahu to elaborate. “It would not be surprising to learn that there are some behind-the-scenes discussions to move this process forward,” he said.
That would leave the ball in Netanyahu’s court. Unless, of course, in the wake of Liberman’s arrival in the coalition, the French initiative gathers pace, or the Obama administration opts to ratchet up the pressure.