The US and Israel see how regional threats could normalize ties with Israel and its moderate Arab neighbors, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.Netanyahu alluded to, but did not specifically state, the possibility that regional threats could help Israel normalize ties with its Arab neighbors as part of a regional peace deal that would resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.“We see the possibility of trying to provide a basis for the growing regional interests that are forming between Israel, the US and countries of the region, both to rebuff Iran and to develop other opportunities and normalization,” Netanyahu said.
“In the end, we hope to achieve peace. This is a fundamental change and one which, I would say, has accompanied all of our discussions and has formed the groundwork of all the agreements between us,” he said as he briefed the government ministers on his meeting with US President Donald Trump in Washington last week – the first since the January 20 inauguration.The idea of a regional peace deal was also raised at the joint press conference the two held at the White House prior to their conversation.Netanyahu has put the idea forward hinting that, with the Trump administration in Washington, it would be possible to come up with ideas for what has long been a favored option for Netanyahu.During the last years of the Obama administration, Netanyahu pushed for a larger initiative, loosely based on a modified form of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.That initiative, which has wide international acceptance, offers Israel normalized ties with countries in the region in exchange for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and a just resolution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. The Arab League reaffirmed the plan, but amended it to include minor land swaps.On Sunday, the Israeli daily Haaretz ran a story describing efforts by the Obama administration in its last year to achieve a regional peace deal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the story was independently confirmed by The Jerusalem Post.Netanyahu also appeared to confirm it at a ministerial meeting on Sunday.As part of those efforts, a secret meeting was convened in February 2016 between Netanyahu, then-US secretary of state John Kerry, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.According to Haaretz, Netanyahu spoke with Obama and Kerry about his ideas for a regional peace deal when the two men met in the oval office in November 2015.Among his proposals was a plan to exchange approvals for massive Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank in exchange for a US agreement that Israel could build in the settlement blocs.In January, Kerry met with Netanyahu in Davos. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas knew of the summit but did not take part.Abdullah and Sisi indicated there that they could recognize Israel as a Jewish state as part of a larger deal.Among the ideas Netanyahu favored were negotiations with the Palestinians and a regional peace summit that would include senior representatives from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni countries.The plan did not move forward, because for the regional players to believe peace was possible, Netanyahu would have needed to bring Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog into the government.Netanyahu made attempts to do so, but did not want to lose the Bayit Yehudi Party led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and he was unable to find a way to reconcile both aspects.On Sunday night, Herzog told Channel 10 that he sat with Netanyahu after that meeting to draft a paper that would have been presented to the Knesset, which he said would have changed the Middle East.“Regional leaders told me they saw it as important that I join, because it would prove that Netanyahu was serious about seeking peace. I received veto power on building in Judea and Samaria. I received the right to negotiate peace. The prime minister ran away because Tourism Minister Yariv Levin told him he would lose the Likud,” Herzog said.Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also spoke of the possibility of a regional deal when he addressed the Munich Security Conference on Sunday.At this time, Liberman said, for a final-status agreement with the Palestinians to be successful, it must be bolstered by a simultaneous regional deal.“The Palestinians do not have the capacity to sign a long final-status agreement with Israel. It is possible only as a part of a regional solution, not an incremental process, but simultaneously. [It would be a] regional solution with the Arab world and the Palestinians,” he said.Separately, in the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that his “historic conversation” with Trump in Washington further strengthens the already strong alliance between Israel and the United States. The positive results of the meeting, he said, were due in part to the personal connection he has with Trump that goes back many years.What cemented the tight bond is the common understanding that Israel and the Trump administration have with respect to the dangers and opportunities in the Middle East, Netanyahu continued.Addressing Tehran’s nuclear threat Netanyahu said, “The two of us see eye to eye on the main – and growing – threat from Iran and the need to stand against Iranian aggression in the various spheres.”Looking at the overall issues of Israeli-US ties, he said, “The alliance between Israel and the US has always been steadfast, but I told them there and also here in Jerusalem: This alliance has become even stronger.“I must say, at the end of the meeting with the president he shook my hand and described the relations between Israel and the US as ‘a new day,’” Netanyahu said, quoting Trump. “I must tell you, this is a new day and a good day.”As a result of the three-day visit to Washington, during which time the premier met with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US-Israeli teams will be formed to deal with a variety of issues.“We agreed to form teams to upgrade all major areas in relations between Israel and US – in the field of security, in the field of intelligence, the cyber field, the field of technology, in the field of economics and many other fields,” Netanyahu said.
Trump on the two state solution for Israel and Palestinians during meet with Trump , Feb. 15, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)