PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu walks with his entourage in the Knesset on Wednesday night. .
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The inability to form a government, the second upcoming elections and now, the decision that an official Israeli government delegation won’t take part in the conference in Bahrain, are contributing to a strategic bungling that may have prevented a new breakthrough in Israeli-Arab relations and perhaps even in relations with the Palestinians.
About a year before the last elections, it seemed that Israel was about to embark on a new breakthrough of normalization with the Arab world, without having to bring about a significant breakthrough in relations with the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Oman with Sultan Quaboos bin Said at the end of 2018, as well as with Chad President Idriss Déby, who even visited Israel. In Netanyahu’s view, the direct dialogue with the Palestinians has failed, and therefore relations with the Arab states must be normalized so that they will ultimately force the Palestinians to accept one arrangement or another. Netanyahu seems to have identified a window of opportunity against the background of the common enemy, Iran.
Although the Defense Ministry throughout 2018 denied that the Iron Dome Air Defense Missile System had been sold to Saudi Arabia, it is impossible to ignore the important statement of Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman that he “recognizes Israel’s right to exist.” That year, Saudi Arabia permitted Israeli planes to fly over its air space to India.
We do not know the under-the-table and behind-the-scenes relationships, and therefore we must adopt what the Saudi foreign minister said that year: “There is the Arab Peace Initiative, which is a road map for reaching peace and establishing normal relations between Israel and the Arab states.” Since neither Israel nor the Palestinians have ever declared that they are adopting the Arab road map, it seems that the American move today is to bring about a “new road map,” the “Deal of the Century.” And its implementation through Arab states should be treated as the new Arab initiative – this time, one that is adopting the American approach.
In December, Netanyahu said at a conference of ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry: “We are in a process of normalization with the Arab world, without our having any progress, to my dismay, with the Palestinians. The expectation has always been that progress with the Palestinians will open a door for us to the Arab world, but with the Palestinians’ adamant refusal to cooperate and with the terror attacks, that hope has been buried. We must try the approach of developing relations with the Arab world that will bring about conditions for the development of ties with the Palestinians.” He began to expedite this concept, above and below the surface, by visiting Oman and Chad, expanding intelligence relations with the Gulf states and more.
The prime minister expressed Israel’s agreement to participate in the Bahrain conference, which was meant to be the first step in sparking the “Deal of the Century” and to establish the economic foundation and the financial incentives for the Palestinians to join the peace process.
HOWEVER, THE inability to form a new government in Israel and as a result, going to new elections, has broken the wheels of the wagon, at a time that the government has been trying to get out of the mire and make progress. It is quite possible that the concession made by Israel and even by the Americans on Israeli representation at the conference in Bahrain, brought about by the second round of elections in Israel, is a missed opportunity for Israel to steer a new direction for peace – or at least, a much better and shared life for both sides. The Israeli presence at such a conference would have been a statement that members of the conference adopt the new approach, which defines “re-calculating the route” on how to reach agreements between Israel and the Palestinians – and which begins specifically with the normalization of relations with participating Arab countries.
We often tend to criticize the Palestinian leadership for never failing to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity – and now the inability of party leaders to form a government has led to an inability to take advantage of an opportunity. It was possible to form a government that would adopt the new concept, especially when there is the most pro-Israel president ever in the White House as well as representatives such as Ambassador David Friedman and special envoy Jason Greenblatt, who are taking a sympathetic, Zionist stance. Precisely at this opportune time, the leadership did not know how to come together and unite, so Israel missed a strategic opportunity to embark on a new path.
It is to be hoped that a new government will emerge as soon as possible after the elections, adopt the new approach and bring about a fundamental change in Israel’s status and perhaps even in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The writer, an attorney, is mayor of Efrat and the chief international envoy of the YESHA Council.
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