A New Middle East Peace Paradigm Being Born?

Peace plans are busting out all over.  First we hear that prominent “pro-Israel” American Jews are putting forward a plan for the next administration to consider.  Then we hear that 214 retired IDF Generals have put forward their plan. Both Plans essentially backed Obama’s parameters requiring:

1. The ’67 lines to be the border subject to negotiated swaps;

2. The division of Jerusalem; and

3. A just settlement of the refugee claims.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair and others in the international community were working behind the scenes to arrange for the Zionist Union, led by Yitzhak Herzog, to join the present government coalition in Israel.  At the last moment, PM Netanyahu opted to include Avigdor Lieberman’s party instead. The deal was cinched by Lieberman dropping many of his demands and settling for his appointment as the Minister of Defense and the appointment of one of his associates as Minister of Absorption. 

The Obama administration made their displeasure known. Lieberman was described as an ultra-nationalist and an extremist. In fact he was neither. Government spokesperson, Tony Ernst, said the Government was the most right wing government ever, which it isn’t.

On Monday evening, Lieberman formally joined the government and was sworn in as Minister of Defense.

PM Netanyshu chose this moment to do something he had never done before. He embraced the Arab Peace Initiative (API), otherwise known as the Saudi Peace Plan.

“The Arab peace initiative 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.

The revisions he had in mind were limited to the regional developments since the API was tabled. No mention was made of his longstanding demand that Palestine be demilitarized, that borders be defensible, that Jerusalem remain the undivided capital of Israel or that Israel be recognized as the nation state of the Jews. We are left to speculate whether these omissions signal that he was dropping such demands.

Netanyahu also 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”. Avigdor Lieberman agreed with both Netanyahu’s comments.

So this underscores that negotiations will not just be about peace but also “regional security.” Thus what is suggested is a two-track approach as part of the same process.  For a couple of years now Netanyahu has indicated that he was talking to the Arab states about mutual security interests.

When Egypt’s al Sisi gave his recent speech in which he offered to broker reconciliation among “the different [Palestinian] factions” in order to arrive at a genuine opportunity to resolve the Palestinian cause, I was upset. He seemed to be flying in the face of Israel’s desires. Now that his remarks were pleasing to Netanyahu, it appears more likely that the content was coordinated with Israel.

You will recall that al Sisi and Israel worked in tandem to reject a ceasefire in the Gaza war of 2014 proposed by President  Obama and Qatar and to enforce their own ceasefire. Something similar is happening now.

Surprisingly, the Arab world has not responded to Netanyahu’s olive branch. Some people in Israel took note of this and said Netanyahu’s move was too little too late. I beg to differ. Given the threats from Iran and ISIS, now is a good time to try to cut a deal. And the Arab League has not slammed the door on talking with Israel.

The two peace plans mentioned above are not inconsistent with any of this, though perhaps more forthcoming.  Caroline Glick rejects the plan put forwarded by the Generals, arguing that the Arabs have always rejected such a partition of the land, that any concessions on Israel’s part lead to more Arab demands, that such a plan if implement will not produce peace or acceptance by the international community but will yield the opposite. In a pithy comment she said:

“There is no Palestinian constituency for peace with Israel. The more Israel offers the Palestinians, the less interested they are in settling.”

Netanyahu knows this, so why does he believe in the possibilities now?

First of all, the Arab states are greatly in need of regional stability. They need Israel on their side in defending against Iran and ISIS. The Arab Peace Initiative (API) when originally tabled called for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians and in return, the Arabs promised to “consider normalizing relations” with Israel thereafter. In essence this gave the Palestinians a veto over regional cooperation.

I believe, they now want to make a deal with Israel, with or without Palestinian approval. If they were to make an agreement with Israel that showed more flexibility on borders and other issues than they had hitherto shown, it would seriously undermine the strategy and the endgame of the Palestinians.

Unfortunately, after the French Conference ended, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir rejected Netanyahu’s request for an update saying, “"Why should we change the Arab Peace Initiative? I believe that the argument the Arab Peace Initiative needs to be watered down in order to accommodate the Israelis is not the right approach."

If that is the last word, there will be no deal.

But that is only part of the strategy. Abbas is a problem, but fortunately his rule is coming to an end.  Thus there is an opportunity to get new leadership.

On May 26, it was reported that Israel and the Arab states were discussing replacing Abbas with Mohammed Dahlan. In fact as far back as Feb 2014, Netanyahu’s special envoy met with Dahlan to discuss his ideas on replacing Abbas.

Dahlan was recently interviewed by al Monitor and what he had to say was not comforting to my ears.  He is an ardent nationalist. He wants to unify the Palestinians in order to strengthen their demands on Israel. He is capable of making a deal with Israel but it would have to be along the lines of the API. He gave no indication that he wanted the destruction of Israel -- which doesn’t necessarily mean that he doesn’t.

In his favor is that he could act as an important bridge between the West Bank and Gaza, which was at one point Dahlan’s power center. He also is a foe of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and an ally with al Sisi.  Minister Lieberman has indicated that he is against wars of attrition and would likely move to destroy Hamas in the next conflict.  This is more likely now, if Dahlan agrees to take charge of Gaza.

Strangely, these developments gave rise to a renewed effort to bring the Zionist Union, headed by Yitzhak Herzog, into the government. Moshe Kahlon, head of Kaluna Party and Minister of Finance, led the effort saying “The rumors and talk of a significant diplomatic move in the region are far more substantial than mere hints in newspapers.” These efforts lead me to believe that the Arab League and Israel are planning a paradigm shift in the peace process.

Israel was concerned that the French Conference that began last Friday, in which 29 nations are participating, including the US, might do as they announced, namely,

“The international community can build on the work developed by the United States in elucidating the core issues and therefore it can help devise solutions, and offer assistance and guarantees for their implementation. It can provide a framework to accompany them to their conclusion.”

Needless to say, Israel was not invited. Israel has insisted on direct negotiation -- that the PA rejects -- and argues that such a conference will encourage Pres Abbas to continue to avoid negotiations. It seems her arguments have gotten traction. President Hollande said at the opening of the conference that the French initiative can only help provide guarantees for a "lasting, solid accord." and that, "The discussion on the conditions for peace between Israelis and Palestinians must take into account the entire region."  And in a statement ahead of the conference on Thursday, he said the meeting will allow participants to "reaffirm their commitment to the two-state solution and their determination to create the conditions for resumption of direct talks."

At the conference’s end nothing was accomplished or agreed up other than to call for another conference at the end of the year.

Lurking in the background is the US, which has remained coy about its intentions. Israel is concerned that this international activity will lead to a United Nations Security Council Resolution that Pres Obama will not veto.

Israel’s efforts to negotiate secretly with the Arab League as an alternate track to international efforts in which they have no control, reminded me of the secret negotiations that she held with the PLO after the 1991 Madrid Conference, which she was forced to attend.   This conference put Jerusalem on the table as a final status issue. It was in these secret negotiations that the Oslo Accords were born.

The Oslo Accords turned out to be a big mistake for Israel and many lives were lost on the altar of peace. Here’s hoping for no repetition.

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