Is something afoot between Israel and her Sunni Arab neighbors? Consider a curious chain of events in the region over the past month or so:
- On the one hand, in recent weeks, the Israelis have flatly turned down an offer by the French to attend a summit in Paris later this summer aimed at kick-starting the moribund peace talks with the Palestinians. Israeli leaders say they keep calling for direct talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but Abbas keeps refusing to come to the table. Abbas says he wants an international conference because he doesn’t trust Netanyahu to operate in good faith. Abbas supports the French approach.
- In recent days, however, the opposition leader of the Israeli parliament — Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog — told reporters he is actively considering joining the Netanyahu government (likely as Foreign Minister) in order to pursue a “rare” opportunity for peace with Israel’s neighbors. “I have identified a rare regional diplomatic opportunity that may lapse and not return,” Herzog told dozens of party activists at a gathering that was secretly recorded and leaked to an Israeli TV station and newspaper. “I don’t say this based on nothing, but based on knowledge. don’t know if it will happen. But it could be that it will happen only due to a change in the government’s composition.”
- Some Zionist Union leaders have blasted such talk in recent days. They’ve said there is no rare moment for peace and have sharply criticized Herzog for being willing to sell out to Netanyahu. They say Herzog is simply angling for a senior government post because he’s slipping in the polls and could soon be voted out of leadership in his own political party. “In a scathing broadside, Yachimovich said the prime minister’s overtures were like ‘a bone Netanyahu has thrown, and called Herzog to come crawling back with the bone in his mouth,’” the Times of Israel reported.
- However, there are curious signs of a possible rapprochement between Israel and Sunni Arab neighbors. Over the last several years, Israeli and Saudi officials, for example, have been jointly developing strategies to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. Mostly this has been done under the radar, with occasional leaks to Israel, Western and Arab media. In June of 2015, however, a curious event happened. The Council on Foreign Relations hosted an event titled, “Regional Challenges and Opportunities: The View from Saudi Arabia and Israel.” In a rare — almost unprecedented — public event of its kind, the speakers were Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Anwar Eshki of Saudi Arabia and the Hon. Dore Gold, Israel’s former Ambassador to the U.N., the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and a confidante of Netanyahu (who was about become Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry soon thereafter). Then, in April 2016, the Egyptians successfully negotiated a transfer of some islands in the Red Sea back to the Saudis, an agreement that required explicit Israeli consent since the islands were covered by the Camp David Accords. This curiously put Israeli, Egyptian and Saudi diplomats in the rare position of privately holding extensive meetings, and then publicly agreeing on a diplomatic accord. Then, earlier this month, something even more curious happened: a senior Saudi official (a member of the Saudi Royal Family, no less) — His Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. — spoke side-by-side at a “pathbreaking” event in Washington, D.C. with Yaakov Amidror, the former Israeli National Security Advisor and close confidante of Netanyahu. They certainly didn’t agree on everything. But they were friendly. They were candid. They talked about various pathways to peace, including the long-discussed Saudi Peace Initiative which was first released in 2002. It’s unthinkable that these two men agreed to do the event without approval from their respective governments at the highest levels, even though they are both “formers.” It was thus fascinating to watch two former officials (more senior that those speaking at the CFR event the previous June) from two nations so long at war talking respectfully, even as friends. Something does appear to be afoot. (watch here)
- Last week, Netanyahu gave a speech to a gathering of foreign ambassadors that seemed to hint he might be open to some version of the Saudi peace plan.”I want to state unequivocally and in front of diplomats from around the world: I continue to support two states for two peoples: a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state — it’s about time,” Netanyahu told the diplomats. Then he added, “In recent years, I’ve seen formerly hostile states in the region and beyond, but especially in the region, form new and deep partnerships with us. I think this is a matter of great importance because I think this creates new hope. We can advance peace with the Palestinians directly and through the support of other nations, including in the region. It was once thought that the only way that we could advance peace with the Arab states was to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That would certainly help enormously. But it’s also true that we might solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem by enjoying the support of Arab states who now see Israel more and more not as an enemy, but as an ally against the forces that threaten their own countries as well.”
- Then today, out of the blue, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi offered to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. “El-Sisi promised Israel on Tuesday warmer ties if it accepts efforts to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, urging its leaders not to waste an opportunity to bring security and hope to a troubled region,” Reuters reported. “In an impromptu speech at an infrastructure conference in the southern city of Assiut, Sisi said his country was willing to mediate a reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions to pave the way toward a lasting peace accord with the Israelis.” Curiously, Reuters also reported that “Sisi, who rarely speaks publicly about foreign policy, offered the 2002 Arab peace initiative as a potential way ahead. The initiative offered full recognition of Israel but only if it gave up all land seized in the 1967 Middle East war and agreed to a ‘just solution’ for Palestinian refugees.”
- UPDATE: “This is a genuine opportunity,” said President el-Sisi on national television. “We are willing to make all efforts to help find a solution to this problem….I say to our Palestinian brothers, you must unite the different factions in order to achieve reconciliation and quickly. We as Egypt are prepared to take on this role. It is a real opportunity to find a long-awaited solution.”
- Immediately, Netanyahu spoke to reporters to offer praise for el-Sisi’s offer. “I welcome Egyptian President El-Sisi’s remarks and his willingness to make every effort to advance a future of peace and security between us and the Palestinians and the peoples of the region,” Netanyahu told reporters. “Israel is ready to participate with Egypt and other Arab states in advancing both the diplomatic process and stability in the region. I appreciate President El-Sisi’s work and also draw encouragement from his leadership on this important issue.”
- Then, very shortly thereafter, opposition leader Herzog put out a statement also praising el-Sisi’s statement. This was particularly significant given that Herzog is currently negotiating with Netanyahu to create a “unity government” and become the nation’s Foreign Minister.
- UPDATE: The French have announced they are postponing their summer peace summit.
- UPDATE: “Channel 10 reported that Netanyahu and Herzog were planning a joint trip to Cairo if the latter joined the coalition, presumably as foreign minister.”
So what exactly is going on?
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This article was reposted on KehilaNews.com with permission.