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Arab-Israeli Relations in a New Regional Framework

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) gives a joint statement with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry prior to their meeting at his Jerusalem office on July 10, 2016. (Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) gives a joint statement with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry prior to their meeting at his Jerusalem office on July 10, 2016. (Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) gives a joint statement with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry prior to their meeting at his Jerusalem office on July 10, 2016. (Getty Images)

by Joseph Braude

Over its long decades, the Palestinian cause has been influenced more by what lay under the table than on it, while Arab statecraft played a major role in lengthening the conflict — both in time and geographic scope. It evolved into a political maze, complicated further by the attempts of the Assad regime, the Qadhafi regime, and others to exercise influence over Palestinian decision making, as is well known to those familiar with the history of the Palestinian organizations. A new height in the dangers of the conflict was reached when the Palestinian cause was hijacked by Saddam Hussein: Having invaded Kuwait, he attempted to create linkage between Kuwait and Palestine — a particularly vicious case of manipulating popular emotions about Palestine to serve the political interests of a regime. Most recently, we have reached a period in which Iran has penetrated the Arab arena to an unprecedented degree, by playing numerous cards, the most prominent being the slogan of “Palestinian resistance.”

Meanwhile, “Israel’s right to exist” has become a principle which the international community defends — a matter which everyone needs to clearly understand, whether they accept it or reject it. On the basis of this reality, the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser accepted the “Rogers Initiative” in August 1970, which effectively recognized Israel’s right to exist as a state — at that, in the face of staunch Palestinian opposition. For that matter, “official” Arab recognition of Israel arguably goes back as far as the Rhodes armistice of 1949. Folded into the pages of this early period in the conflict’s history is a story that took place in the first half of the 1950s: As relations soured between Abdel Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood, supporters of Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Husayni came to view Egypt’s role in various initiatives to resettle Palestinian refugees with great suspicion. Palestinian communists, moreover, managed to acquire, by way of an employee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the draft of an agreement between the latter and the Egyptian government which called for the repatriation of Palestinians from the Gaza strip to Al-‘Arish. Preparations for this effort had been underway between June 1953 and June 1955. Communist activists printed thousands of copies of the document and distributed it en masse, spurring angry demonstrations across Gaza. Yet there were further attempts to reach “secret agreements” and “tacit understandings,” even after the “tripartite aggression” against Egypt in 1956 — the very heyday of the broadcast “Voice of the Arabs” — which were of course well discharged by the time of the June 1967 war.

Among further matters that should also be placed on the table are two essential realities: first, that “political investment” in the Palestinian cause was for decades a profitable venture for some Arab regimes in their relations with the West, in such a way as to benefit those regimes at the expense of the Palestinians themselves. Second, the conflict with Israel has led to an undeniable outcome well summarized by a leadership figure in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement when he said, “We have succeeded in threatening Israel’s security, but we have failed to threaten Israel’s existence.” This observation was, for the man who uttered it, not so much a statement of surrender as a sober acknowledgment of the outcome of his efforts.

In recent decades, Israel has been striving for peace, despite being drawn into war by the resistance forces. Meanwhile, many Arabs have continued to sing the songs of war. This state of affairs has caused Israel’s supporters to perceive and present the country as a villa in the jungle, a nation in search of a partner in peace. From an Arab standpoint, amid negative and deteriorating circumstances in the Arab region, it eventually became necessary to migrate Arab political practice with respect to the conflict from one of “bilateral dialogue” to one of “joint dialogue.” And so developed, for the first time, an “Arab initiative,” adopted by the Arab League, as a basis for a collective Arab position which would serve to mitigate the shortcomings inherent in bilateral negotiation, as well as lay the foundation for a solution that would bridge the gap between the rights of the Palestinians and an internationally recognized point of reference.

The “King Abdullah Peace Initiative,” presented to the Council of the Arab League at the summit convened in the latter’s 14th regular rotation (2002), was an important step in the direction of a “feasible peace.” The Initiative asserted in substance what the June 1996 Conference of the Arab Summit in Cairo had also determined: that a just and comprehensive peace was a strategic choice for Arab states, to be realized in accordance with international legitimacy and commensurate with Israeli reciprocity. The “Initiative” referenced UN Security Resolutions 242 and 338, which had been fortified by the resolutions of the Madrid conference of 1991; the principle of “land for peace”; and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital — in exchange for the establishment of normal relations by all Arab countries in the framework of a comprehensive peace with Israel. All of this sprang from Arab states’ conviction that the “military solution” to the conflict has not achieved peace or security for any party. It also called upon Israel to reconsider its policies toward the Palestinians, and overtly reciprocate its strategic choice for a “just peace” — which the Initiative defined as a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories, and reaching a mutually agreeable settlement of the refugee issue on the basis of UN resolution 194. At that point, Arab states would regard the Arab-Israeli conflict as having ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel that would establish security for all peoples of the region, as well as create normal relations with Israel in the framework of a comprehensive settlement. The Initiative also aimed to ensure that there would be no forms of Palestinian refugee repatriation that imperiled the delicate circumstances of their Arab host countries.

Ron Dermer
Ron Dermer

On July 10, Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukri met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem to discuss efforts to forge peace between Palestinians and Israelis, following meetings which Shoukri held with Palestinian officials in Ramallah on June 29. In Jerusalem, he said that a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was “not far from attainable,” and called for taking confidence-building steps to revive peace negotiations between the parties which had ended in 2014. For his part, Netanyahu said, “Today I call again on the Palestinians to follow the greatest example of Egypt and Jordan and join us for direct negotiations. This is the only way we can address all the outstanding problems between us, and turn the vision of peace based on two states for two peoples into a reality.” During his reception of the Egyptian guest, the Israeli prime minister repeated his invitation to the Palestinians to resume direct negotiations with Israel, and welcomed the efforts which Egypt was exerting toward resolving the conflict and reaching a “broader peace in the region.”

The Egyptian foreign minister’s visit coincided with a French initiative to revive the peace process in the Middle East, which Paris announced in an international conference that convened on July 3, aiming to gather the parties to the conflict around the negotiating table by the end of this year. The Palestinian side welcomed the initiative, while Israeli officials maintain that only direct negotiations can end decades of Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

A statement by the Egyptian foreign ministry says that Shoukri’s visit to Israel was part of Cairo’s efforts to build confidence between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of resuming talks for the sake of a comprehensive solution which would permit the Palestinians to establish a state for themselves while also guaranteeing the security of Israel.

The Egyptian president has called on Palestinians and Israelis to seize the opportunity to realize a historic peace, adding that the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel will be warmer if Palestinians achieve the demand for their own state. Egypt was the first Arab state to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel in an agreement signed in 1979 with American sponsorship. Sisi proposed that Israel accept the 2002 “Arab Peace Initiative,” asserting that it would bring about a new stage in relations between Arabs and Tel Aviv.

Israel’s renewed hopes for greater cooperation with its neighbors come at a time of broader regional convergence: From Riyadh to Rabat, great powers share a feeling of necessity to join together in defense from violent trans-state actors, whether Khomeiniist or Takfiri Jihadist.

The Peace Between Egypt and Israel

Despite Israel’s comparative isolation in the region, it has enjoyed an enduring security partnership with Egypt, now in its 38th year.
Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington and a confidante of Prime Minister Netanyahu, says, “President Sisi is seriously trying to confront the dangers from extremists that operate in the Sinai in a way that Muhammad Morsi and even President Mubarak did not. I think Mubarak understood the problem but didn’t act to the same extent. Morsi, in a sense, didn’t see a problem. I think President Sisi understands that groups operating in Sinai threaten Egypt. He confronts them with resolve and determination. Furthermore, President Sisi is confronting ideological extremism. The courage Sisi has shown should be encouraged and praised by Western leaders.”

It is widely observed that the peace between the governments of Egypt and Israel has not translated into peace between the two societies. Dermer acknowledged this, but also conveyed his wishes that the situation would improve. “I hope the peace between Israel and Egypt deepens into a true peace between peoples,” he said. He also saw a ray of hope stemming from Egypt’s religious leadership: “I was pleased to see that Pope Tawadros II visited Jerusalem to attend the funeral of Archbishop Anba Abraham. I hope it will help further improve the relationship between our peoples.”

Dermer also described initiatives of the late King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz in fostering interfaith dialogue to be “a positive step” toward the realization of peace. With respect to the late king Abdullah’s “Arab Peace Initiative,” in May of last year, Prime Minister Netanyahu asserted that Israel was “committed to pursuing peace … with all our neighbors.” Dermer added, “The spirit behind the initiative was a very positive step — a dramatic change from the ‘Khartoum Conference’ following the 1967 war calling for no negotiations, no recognition, and no peace. It is also noteworthy that the 2002 initiative came before the recent changes in the region which made it clearer that the interests of Israel and the leading Arab powers are more closely coming together.”

Alongside these positive statements, Prime Minister Netanyahu also in recent months conveyed reservations about aspects of the Arab Peace Initiative. They include, among others, the matter of the Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu also said that the demand that Israel reconsider its views on the Golan Heights had been overtaken by events in Syria. In particular, on the eve of negotiations between the Assad regime and Syrian opposition factions, he stridently rejected turning over the Golan Heights. His view of the duration of time for which Israel would maintain total sovereignty over the Golan was translated into Arabic as “Ila ‘l-Abad [forever]”. Asked to clarify the prime minister’s statements, Ambassador Dermer said, “Multiple Israeli Prime Ministers tried in the past to negotiate peace deals with Syria and were prepared to make territorial concessions on the Golan. The Prime Minister’s statement reflects reality on the ground: Syria has collapsed, and the forces operating there are a threat to Israel. We need this strategic territory to protect our population. Given the situation, it’s illogical to think Israel will withdraw from there — yet some suggest political proposals in which Israel does so. That would be a security disaster for Israel that would have ISIS and Iran surrounding the Sea of Galilee. I think that’s how the statement should be seen, not only in the Arab world but in the international community.”

Sharing his own perspective on the Prime Minister’s controversial remarks was Franck Salameh, an ethnolinguistics professor at Boston College and a political writer, focused on Syrian and Levantine issues, who is proficient in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and Syriac. He said that the statement in its original Hebrew contained more nuance than the international media managed to capture in its reporting — which was, in his view, “based on a questionable characterization of what was in fact a series of four statements about aspects of Israel’s relationship with the Golan.” These statements, when read carefully, do not necessarily rule out prior proposals for a resolution alluded to by the Ambassador: “People of good intent throughout the region undoubtedly hope that a time will be reached when security and stability are established in Syria, and neither ISIS nor Iran surround the Sea of Galilee as is presently the case,” he said. “In such a desired future context, there could be shared sovereignty over the Golan. There could be joint Israeli, Syrian, or international patrols on the Golan — an arrangement whereby the line itself did not change but the composition of troops on the territory was altered in some way. In such a settlement, Israel might not withdraw entirely from the Golan, nor necessarily give up sovereignty over part of it, but may cede sovereignty to Syria over one part of it and retain sovereignty over another part of it.” Summing up his views, Salameh said, “The Prime Minister’s statements may arguably be read as leaving the door open to a future in which a stabilized Syrian government, in reaching a peace settlement with Israel, negotiates some form of mutually acceptable compromise over a portion of the Golan.”

Ambassador Dermer, for his part, conveyed a more general hope that whatever differences may arise over particular intraregional arrangements could be worked through over time: “Despite differences we may have regarding precise details of a future agreement, I hope that 14 years after the King’s initiative, we could work together in its spirit toward a broader regional peace. For years people said, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will solve all the problems of the region. But as Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, a process where the region is moving closer together may actually help us resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Two States for Two Peoples

According to Ambassador Dermer, Israel has two minimal requirements for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The first is “recognition of Israel as the nationstate of the Jewish people” alongside recognition of a Palestinian state. The second is “to ensure that Israel’s minimal security requirements are met, so that we are protected if the peace potentially unravels.”

There is unclarity in some Arab quarters as to the meaning of “recognition of Israel as the nationstate of the Jewish people” — and why the Israeli government insists upon it. Dermer clarified the matter: “This is not meant in a religious sense. Jews are both a religion and a people. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. 25% of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish. We are not expecting them to convert to Judaism. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim citizens of Israel should have equal individual rights. But Israel is also the one country in the world where there are collective rights for the Jewish people. For example, a Jew anywhere around the world has the right to become a citizen of Israel. In the past, our people did not have that right anywhere, and we paid a heavy price for our homelessness.” Dermer appears to understand that reaching a political settlement with Arab heads of state also requires, in the long run, acceptance on the part of these states’ populations. He said, “An important change that must happen within the Arab world for a lasting peace is recognition that the Jewish people are in Israel by right.”

Ambassador Dermer’s expressed willingness to give and take with Palestinians seemed somehow inconsistent with news reports of a statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu during last year’s Israeli elections, in which he appeared to rule out a two-state solution as long as he was prime minister. The statement sparked criticism in the Arab world as well as numerous Western capitals. The Ambassador said that the statement was misunderstood, and offered a clarification: “That was not the message at all. He was asked what he understood as whether he foresaw a Palestinian state in his next term of office. A similar view was subsequently conveyed by the American President, and others who said, for this or that reason, whoever is responsible, we can’t get a final settlement right now, but should build bridges to get there in the future. It’s recognition of a short-term reality. We hope to find a Palestinian partner prepared to accept Israel’s two minimal requirements for a peace agreement.”

In recent years, the “two-state solution” has been increasingly criticized by some voices who regard it as more an international mantra — a diplomatic nicety — than a realistic outcome of negotiations. But Ambassador Dermer insisted that his government sees it as a promising vision, still worth pursuing: “I hope that the Palestinians will seize the opportunity that will be provided to all of them by living in peace with Israel. I think that they are an incredibly creative people. They are an educated people. I think that in putting those energies into building up their own society, and creating a better future for themselves and their families, they will find in Israel an enthusiastic partner, and I think the sky is the limit on what we can achieve together.”

With respect to negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas, Ambassador Dermer conveyed his regret at the outcome of the limited contact between his prime minister and President Abbas: “Israel’s policy has been that the settlements are an issue that needs to be negotiated as part of the final status negotiations. They were never a precondition to peace talks before, and the prime minister has wanted to engage in peace talks without preconditions for seven years. He has spoken to president Abbas for all of seven hours, because President Abbas has simply refused to meet with the Prime Minister without the Prime Minister agreeing to all sorts of conditions. One of these conditions was a settlement freeze. When the prime minister did a settlement freeze for ten months .— which was unprecedented — it took nine months to get President Abbas to agree to come to the negotiations. And when he came to the negotiations, all he wanted to talk about was extending the settlement freeze. This issue can and should be resolved — but has never been and is not the reason we do not have peace. We should address all issues in negotiations. But you cannot conclude negotiations if the Palestinians won’t even start them.”

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Joseph Braude
Joseph Braude is anauthor, broadcaster and Middle East specialist, andadvisor to the Al-Mesbar Center for Studies and Research.

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