Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi waves as he arrives to the opening ceremony of the New Suez Canal.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Forty-three years ago, an Egyptian president made back-channel overtures to Israel. They were rebuffed.
More than 2,000 Israelis were killed and thousands more were wounded when Anwar Sadat launched a war aimed at bringing Israel into a diplomatic process after becoming convinced the government of prime minister Golda Meir would not return to the 1967 borders in exchange for a peace agreement. Six years later, Menachem Begin agreed to exactly that, giving back every last centimeter of the Sinai Peninsula.
This week, another Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said: “There is an opportunity to write a new chapter of peace in the area... If we can all join forces in order to solve the Palestinian issue by creating hope for Palestinians and assuring security for Israelis, we will be able to write a new chapter that may prove to be more important than the peace accords between Israel and Egypt.”
Sisi perhaps did not bring anything new to the table. He did not spell out a fundamental change in the Arab position, yet he offered a vision of hope, and his comments come at a moment of changing realities in the Middle East, when Israel has a confluence of interests with Sunni Arab states against a rising Iran and against radical Islam, and at a moment when intelligence cooperation and talks between Israeli and Arab officials are an open secret.
There is, as Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog put it, “an opportunity here that we must not turn our backs on,” one that should be explored and exhausted.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu indeed initially welcomed Sisi’s remarks and said “Israel is ready to participate with Egypt and other Arab states in advancing both the diplomatic process and stability in the region.”
But those comments it transpired lacked any substance. They came when Netanyahu was ostensibly negotiating with Herzog to join the coalition before he took a sharp Right turn and instead joined forces with Avigdor Liberman, appointing the Yisrael Beytenu leader as defense minister.
By opting to bring Liberman into his coalition and not Herzog, Netanyahu has chosen intransigence over initiative and extremism over moderation. By replacing Moshe Ya’alon with Liberman in the defense portfolio, Netanyahu has chosen adventurism over caution and hubris over humility.
The prudent and experienced Ya’alon will be replaced by the rash and reckless Liberman – who once suggested bombing Egypt’s Aswan Dam, who during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge called for the IDF to “go all the way” and take control of Gaza and who has labeled Israel’s Arab minority a “fifth column.”
Yet there is another side to Liberman: a side that knows how to be pragmatic and to tone down rhetoric, a side that recognizes that Israel has no choice but to reach territorial compromise and a side that recognizes that regional conditions have matured to the point that “for the first time an agreement acceptable for Israel can be reached.”
The question is which side will trump, will it be Mr. Avigdor or Dr. Liberman, will he and Netanyahu press forward and explore the opportunities presented by the regional constellation of interests or will they march further isolated into the twilight zone of the Barack Obama presidency and the French peace initiative where Israel is likely to come under severe diplomatic pressure.
The answer to those questions is likely to determine whether once again Israel finds itself ruing a missed opportunity and counting the costs.