Analysis: Netanyahu’s call for a revised Saudi initiative may be too little, too late

What is 14 years between "frenemies"?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Yes, Israel likes Paris, but when it comes to peace, Cairo has become its new Mecca.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday night attempted to circumvent a French-led internationalized process due to launch Friday by proposing a regional one based on a revised version of the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative.
In so doing, he sounded as if he was finally responding to a 14 year old call by the Arab world to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and a resolution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.
Because, hey, what is 14 years between "frenemies"? This is not the first time Netanyahu has spoken of the importance of regional players to the peace process, and of Saudi plan in particular as the basis for such talks.
He mentioned it already last year upon his re-election and has resurrected it more clearly this month, including on twitter, as the specter of a French-brokered peace process becomes an increasing reality.
But the statement he made on Monday night, as he stood together with his new defense minister Avigdor Liberman, marks his most clear call to date.
“The Arab peace initiative [also known as the Saudi plan] includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians. We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states, revisions to that initiative, so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002, but maintains the agreed goal of two-states for two peoples," he said.
“To this end, we welcome the recent speech by Egyptian President [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi and his offer to help advance peace and security in the region,” Netanyahu said.
The addition of the phrase, “peace and security,” is not random. Netanyahu has opposed the French initiative because he fears it would dictate the end results of any negotiations, before talks even began. It is already clear to him that those final terms would place maximum weight on a Palestinian vision of two-states and give minimal consideration to an Israeli one.
Hence the Palestinians have embraced the initiative singing, “Viva La France,” while Israel worries the results would endanger its already besieged state. That is particularly true given how little influence it has in a European arena that is just waking up to the dangers of Middle East extremism.
Israel hopes a Cairo led process with moderate Arab nations would be a more sympathetic staging ground, because the common regional security interests that binds it to its moderate neighbors, might also give Israel more leverage in setting a framework for the renewal of talks with the Palestinian that have been frozen since April 2014.
But the Arab world did not immediately respond to Netanyahu’s waving of a new olive branch.
Israel woke up Tuesday morning to deafening silence. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas certainly did not race to Jerusalem to talk with Netanyahu.
Earlier this month, Sisi called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take historic steps for peace. But on Tuesday morning, Sisi did not issue invitations for a Cairo summit nor did he appear to tell the French to cancel their June 3 Paris meeting, with representatives from over 20 countries. This includes the Arab League and Western nations such as the US.
Over the weekend the Arab League said it stood behind the French initiative. It too has been mum on Netanyahu’s statements.
True, Netanyahu just spoke Monday night, but one might imagine that after 14 years the Arab League would want to seize the day. And they might have, had Netanyahu declared his unconditional acceptance of the 2002 Arab Plan.
But what the Israeli premier offered was talks based on an unspecified revised version of the initiative. He did so, because he believes that Israel has options when it comes to setting the terms of a two-state solution, particularly with respect to the issue of borders.
Perhaps former prime minister Ariel Sharon could have followed his 2005 Gaza pull-out with a call for a revised Arab peace plan and succeeded in holding such talks. Netanyahu could maybe even have done it in 2009. But in 2016, he has very little wiggle room or credit in any arena for a two-state solution not based on the pre-1967 lines.
His Monday night proclamation might sound dramatic to the Israeli ear but for the larger international community and the regional one, it is probably too little, to late, to shift the ever hardening consensus that the 67-lines are the borders of a two-state solution.