PARIS — With the ink barely dry on the notably vague concluding communique, Israel rushed to denounce Friday’s Paris peace summit. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declared it a “missed opportunity,” maintaining it encouraged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to believe he could continue to avoid direct talks with Israel. And in a phone conversation later that evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told the French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault that the communique’s call for an international peacemaking conference by year’s end could wind up complicating regional efforts that might actually have a chance of making progress.
Netanyahu has repeated over and over in recent weeks and months that he sees possibilities for warming ties with various Arab states. And his Foreign Ministry chief Dore Gold told The Times of Israel last week of the belief that such progress might in turn see Arab states pushing the Palestinians toward compromise. “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,” said Gold. “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.”
To that end, Netanyahu, in a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday, was reported to have “said yes” to new efforts led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia for regional progress toward peace.
There’s just one problem with this Israeli tactic of bitterly rejecting the French effort, ostensibly in favor of Saudi and/or Egyptian attempts to achieve progress: They may amount to pretty much the same thing.
The French were the driving force behind Friday’s Paris gathering, of course, but it was emphatically not a solo act. High-level officials were present at the conference from the EU, the UN, the US, and Arab states. Kerry was coordinating with Israel. Various participants at the summit issued statements, appeared at press conferences, and briefed reporters less formally.
More importantly, the presence and prominent involvement of Arab states — Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia — underlined that the French-led efforts are not at odds with the Arab world’s stance on normalization with Israel, via the Arab Peace Initiative. On the contrary.
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, made himself available to reporters covering the summit with the goal of talking up the Arab Peace Initiative as the essential route to Israeli-Arab peace. “The Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table,” he insisted, in English, to a group of reporters who stayed behind after the summit had concluded. “The Arab Peace Initiative does not need changing or adjusting,” he added, in apparent reference to Netanyahu’s recent partial acceptance of the initiative and his call for its amendment to meet Israeli concerns. “It’s on the table as is,” said Jubeir.
Criticizing the French, and talking up the Arab proposal in a possible effort to dodge Paris, Netanyahu may need to grasp that the Saudi-drafted, Arab League-backed initiative is at the core of the French efforts.
What will Netanyahu do if the French-envisioned conference by year’s end is convened with a still-more-prominent Saudi presence and role? Will he seek to stay away, and complain about international meddling? Or will he seize the opportunity for direct interaction with the Saudis, and other Arab states that have no formal ties with Israel, upgrading the interaction that has already seen Gold and the former National Security Council chief Yaakov Amidror share the stage with Saudi counterparts in recent months?
Deeply concerned at the emboldening of Iran, grappling with crises from Syria to Yemen, the Saudis are leading a group of Arab states that might actually be as eager to normalize with Israel as Israel is with them. The Paris summit, far from being a complicating factor, could turn out to be the start of a process that facilitates the very “Arab-world-first, Palestinians-later” interaction that Gold was speaking about. If, that is, the prime minister decides to get on board.