Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first public statement after the swearing in of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in particular the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
But unlike the Arab Peace Initiative that made normalization with the Arab countries conditional upon a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu proposed normalization first and peace afterward.
“We are ready to negotiate with the Arab states on an updated initiative that reflects the dramatic regional changes that have occurred since 2002, but that maintains the agreed-upon goal of two states for two peoples,” the prime minister declared last Monday with Liberman at his side.
“The Arab Peace Initiative contains positive elements that can help re-institute constructive negotiations with the Palestinians,” he said.
A number of factors came together to trigger Netanyahu’s statements. The addition of Yisrael Beytenu (and not the Zionist Union) to the government coalition has fueled speculation in the world that Israel has become more intransigent vis-a-vis peace initiatives with the Palestinians. Netanyahu seemed to want to counter this impression by making a significant diplomatic statement.
The launch Friday of the Paris-led international peace initiative threatens to put pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. Thirty countries and international organizations are actively working to seek ways of reaching an agreement that Netanyahu rightly fears could be foisted on his government.
And even if the French initiative fails, the next step might be an attempt to get a UN Security Council resolution passed. This time the Obama administration, which is in its final months, might not use its veto to stop such a resolution.
In short, Netanyahu understands that Israel needs to position itself to deal with various diplomatic initiatives in the offing. Failing to be proactive creates a vacuum.
No conflict that attracts so much international attention goes ignored for long.
One way of deflecting these initiatives is by launching one of our own that avoids the pitfalls of previous attempts to reach peace with the Palestinians.
The initiative that Netanyahu is pushing seeks to flip the conventional order of peacemaking. The Oslo model, the Arab initiative and the French initiative are predicated on the idea that a negotiated peace with the Palestinians would be a precursor and a necessary precondition for peace and normalization with the whole Arab world; Netanyahu hopes to change the order.
First, according to this thinking, an accommodation needs to be reached with the Arab world. Once this happens, the Palestinians will have broad regional support for embarking on nation-building. Only then can fruitful talks between Israelis and Palestinians begin.
This approach is based on the idea that today – more than ever – Israel and Sunni states such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia share a number of interests, from the battle against Islamic State to the curtailing of Iran’s hegemony in the region. The Arab states also stand to benefit from economic ties with Israel.
Once a framework of relations between Israel and the Sunni states is hammered out, the Palestinian component can be added to the equation. The prime minister is right that the Palestinians will need Arab support to overcome the internal conflicts that make Palestinian state-building impossible right now. The split between Hamas and Fatah has created two distinct territories – one in the Gaza Strip and the other in the West Bank – each with its own leadership. Only after this rift is bridged can there be serious talk of a Palestinian state.
The involvement of Egypt and Jordan, two countries headed by regimes opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, might have a moderating impact on Palestinian society, which has in the past decade shown a preference for Hamas over Fatah.
The question remains whether the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Saudis will be willing to cooperate in such an initiative. The shake-up in the Middle East in the wake of the “Arab Spring” has created new opportunities for cooperation between Israel and some of its neighbors. Will the more moderate Sunni states in the region take advantage of these opportunities?