Egypt ready to pressure Palestinians on peace process, envoy says

In first public remarks, Ambassador Hazem Khairat also warns ‘continuation of occupation’ causes terror; calls for closing Israel’s nuclear facilities

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Egyptian Ambassador to Israel Hazem Khairat addressing the Herzliya Conference, June 17, 2016 (screen shot)
Egyptian Ambassador to Israel Hazem Khairat addressing the Herzliya Conference, June 17, 2016 (screen shot)

Cairo is willing to help create an “appropriate Palestinian environment” to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Egypt’s envoy to Israel said Thursday, appearing to answer the Israeli demand for Arab states to exert more pressure on Ramallah.

But in his first public appearance since becoming ambassador in February, Hazem Khairat also appeared to blame Israel for the stalemate in the peace process and reiterated Cairo’s desire to rid Israel of its reported nuclear arsenal.

“As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is facing a dangerous deadlock, Egypt still believes that reaching a peace agreement is achievable,” Khairat said during a speech at the Herzliya Conference.

“For a just peace that brings security back to the region, Egypt will continue to work with all parties, including preparing an appropriate Palestinian environment and activating the Arab Peace Initiative. But only Israelis and Palestinians can make a courageous choice to achieve it.”

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued repeatedly that an Israeli detente with the Arab world should take place before an agreement with the Palestinian can be signed, and expressed the hope that Arab leaders could exert pressure on Ramallah to make the concessions necessary for a peace deal.

But despite Khairat’s remarkable comment, he made plain that he does not believe Jerusalem can wait indefinitely while leaving the Palestinian issue untouched.

“Ignoring the facts is not changing the facts. Rather, it can actually lead to the very explosion it attempts to avoid, as the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence would show,” he said.

He then went on list a “a sample of tragic developments” that took place: “the tension in Jerusalem, the deteriorating situation in the West Bank, including the settlements that are expanding in Area C [the West Bank area under Israeli administrative and military control], eroding the land of the future State of Palestine, as well as the incursions in Areas A and B.” These issues, he postulated, “undermine hope for the future.”

There is not much time left for the implementation of a two-state solution, the ambassador said, adding that the absence of peace benefits extremist organizations.

“While there is no justification for terrorism, its cure should deal with the causes, and not only with the symptoms,” he said. This includes tackling all causes of violent extremism, “whether those causes are political or economic or social, or the continuation of occupation and other unresolved chronic political problems.”

Khairat referenced Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s recent speech in support of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, but also hailed the current French peace initiative “as contributing to the framework of international action to this end.” A ministerial meeting in Paris earlier this month, he said, “has certainly made a new step toward peace.”

Israel dismissed the Paris summit as a “missed opportunity” that distanced the prospects of peace.

French President Francois Hollande (C), United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (C-L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (C-R), US Secretary of State John Kerry (4th R), European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini (3rd R) and officials pose for a group photo at an international meeting in a bid to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in Paris, on June 3, 2016. (AFP Photo/Pool/Kamil Zihnioglu)
French President Hollande (C), UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (C-L), French Foreign Minister Ayrault (C-R), US Secretary of State Kerry (4th R), EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Mogherini (3rd R) in Paris, June 3, 2016. (AFP Photo/Pool/Kamil Zihnioglu)

The Egyptian envoy devoted a significant portion of his address to nuclear nonproliferation, taking pride in Cairo’s attempts to create a Middle East devoid of atomic weapons. He decried “the lack of political will of some few, not all” that resulted in the failure of these efforts.

Most recently, in September 2015, Cairo unsuccessfully spearheaded a campaign to pass a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency that would have called for international monitoring of Israel’s nuclear facilities.

“Egypt has made a great effort and is determined to continue working in coordination with partners to establish a zone free of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East,” he said. “We hope that all states in the region will respond to this call for peace and security for all.”

‘What could Israel ask for more than this?’

Also speaking at the Herzliya Conference, Jordanian Ambassador to Israel Walid Obeidat reiterated his Egyptian colleague’s call for a quick resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, similarly endorsing the French initiative but highlighting the Arab Peace Initiative.

Jordanian Ambassador to Israel Walid Obeidat at the Herzliya Conference, June 16, 2016 (Adi Cohen Zedek)
Jordanian Ambassador to Israel Walid Obeidat at the Herzliya Conference, June 16, 2016 (Adi Cohen Zedek)

“In Jordan’s opinion, in the Arab states’ opinion, the Arab Peace Initiative stands a master of all initiatives when we talk about regional approaches,” he said.

The initiative, which promises Israel full normalization with the Arab world after a peace accord with the Palestinians is reached, is not only endorsed by the Arab League but also by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Obeidat said.

“We’re talking in total about 58 countries. What could Israel ask for more than this?”

The Jordanian diplomat noted Netanyahu’s May 30 partial embrace of the Arab initiative but indicated that Israel needs to do more than merely pay lip service to the idea. “We are aware of recent indications, recent interaction, with the Arab Peace Initiative,” he said in concluding his remarks. “We view them as very positive, but we still have to see action in this regard.”

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