Can a regional process unlock Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Commentary

If Arab states remain committed to increased cooperation with Israel, they should explore how these growing ties could be leveraged to advance Palestinian sovereignty.

Of all the countries in the Middle East, Israel has so far benefited most from the post-Arab Spring environment. Amongst other things, the jumbling of the Middle East’s geopolitical map has provided unprecedented opportunities for Israel to advance a process of back-door normalisation with the Arab world that is largely decoupled from the Palestinian track.

Israel has taken advantage of this new status quo in order to steadily move closer to a number of Arab countries that do not officially recognise it, including Gulf States such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Many of these relations have existed in the background for a number of years, but the current regional context combined with Israel’s discovery of the massive Leviathan gas field provides fertile ground to begin pushing these forward in the open.

The shared regional interest in containing and ultimately rolling-back Iranian hegemony has, in particular, acted as catalyst for closer relations between Israel and with Sunni Arab regimes across the Middle East. This goes hand in hand with the regional frustration and opposition to the US sponsored nuclear agreement with Iran and its receding footprint in the Middle East. Against this backdrop, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken to arguing that “there is a new recognition among major countries in the Middle East that Israel is not their mortal enemy, to say the least, but is a potential ally in addressing these common challenges”.

Israel has sought to exploit the political fractures in the region to counter the Palestinian drive for international recognition with its own drive for regional normalisation. It is also seeking to make inroads beyond the Middle East, including in Africa, where Israeli efforts to renew diplomatic ties with Chad – a majority Muslim country – may bear fruit in the near future. Netanyahu’s recent trip in sub-Saharan Africa also seems to signal increased reciprocal interest which could, in the long run, have a positive impact on Israel’s standing at the United Nations. In Asia too, Netanyahu has advocated establishing relations with the world’s most populous Muslim country – Indonesia.

Netanyahu’s recent trip in sub-Saharan Africa also seems to signal increased reciprocal interest which could, in the long run, have a positive impact on Israel’s standing at the United Nations.

While trade, energy and security cooperation are often drivers for these proto-relations, Israeli leaders have touted their country’s “diplomatic spring” as an indication that solving the Palestinian issue is no longer a pre-requisite for acceptance of and strategic cooperation with Israel. The arc of conflicts that have spread across the region in the wake of the Arab Spring has also been used to deflect international criticism of Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPTs). The Israeli argument is that non-resolution of the Palestinian issue is no longer the main driver of instability in the Islamic world, and as such, is not a strategic priority.

The missing Palestinians

This limited Israeli rapprochement with Arab states does not signal complete acceptance, since these relations remain as deep as astroturf. What’s more, the pragmatic relationships that many of the region’s leaders enjoy with Israel show few signs of percolating down to grassroots Arab society, which remains virulently anti-Israeli – and in some cases virulently anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, both Israel and Arab states have shown they have a common interest in engaging on key dossiers beyond the Palestinian issue and there still appears to be space for greater rapprochement before the parties reach the limit of what is possible without full normalisation.

In fact, one of Netanyahu’s main foreign policy accomplishments has been to advance normalisation without budging one inch on the Palestinian issue. Officials in Egypt and other Arab states have reiterated their commitment to defending Palestinian rights on a number of occasions and have increasingly mooted the idea of a regional approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet such talk can seem at times like little more than a game of smoke and mirrors designed to legitimise and facilitate relations with Israel.

In reality Israel has to do very little on the Palestinian issue in order to maintain its regional relationships. To many Israelis, the theory that Arab states will grudgingly turn a blind eye to the treatment of Palestinians for the sake of more immediate strategic necessities has yet to be disproven.

Israeli actions do occasionally lead to deteriorations in its regional relations, however these tend to be blips. For example, Jordan and Egypt recalled their ambassadors to Israel in response to Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian territories, but both were eventually returned in an effort to mend relations. And far from restraining Israeli actions towards the Gaza Strip, a shared enmity towards Hamas has meant Egyptian attitudes under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have tended to converge with –– or even exceed – those of Israel.

This limited Israeli rapprochement with Arab states does not signal complete acceptance, since these relations remain as deep as astroturf. 

Even the serious rupture in Israeli-Turkish relations caused by the Israeli killing of ten Turkish activists aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship in May 2010 has now been mended. Turkey was able to extract an apology and compensation from Israel, but it ultimately conceded on its third condition, which was the removal of Israel’s blockade on the Strip, settling instead for the provision of Turkish humanitarian supplies via the Israeli port of Ashdod. Although this was something that the Turkish government felt it could spin as a concession extracted from Israel, it has done nothing to alter Israeli policy or significantly alleviate the conditions under which Gazans live.

Missing in all of this has been any sense of Palestinian agency or disruptive strategy to either call out or embarrass Arab leaders for embracing Israel at their expense. Nor have they shown any ability to leverage Israeli-Arab relations to their advantage. Instead, the Palestinians have found themselves increasingly shut out, with actions by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to garner Arab support seemingly designed only for internal consumption and to shore-up his flagging popularity.

A regional peace process?

The perceived alignment of Israeli and Arab interests – coupled with Egyptian indications that it may push for a regional peace process – has been seized on by European officials and Israeli politicians as a historic opportunity that could “undoubtedly changed the face of the region". This belief has seemingly been bolstered through recent visits to Israel by a delegation of prominent Saudis and Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, to discuss the prospect of regional peace. The potential for a reciprocal visit to Cairo by Netanyahu has already been raised.

This idea that expanded regional engagement could help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has proven particularly attractive to the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini and other European leaders. But Europe must guard against Israeli efforts to bamboozle their way into yet another open-ended process with Egyptian help, not least given that both sides seem to be using this as a ploy to further a set of self-interests that do little to advance the prospects of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

For Egypt, owning the process gives President Sisi increased political legitimacy on the world stage and helps him secure his relations with the US, not to mention that it provides a useful distraction from economic and human rights issues at home. For Israel, this allows it to “play out the clock” during the remaining months of President Barack Obama’s administration and block what Prime Minister Netanyahu views to be potentially more impactful steps, whether in the form of the French peace initiative or a US reiteration of parameters to frame future peace negotiations.

This has not stopped the Israeli government from making a show of rediscovering the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API). Despite offering full normalisation of Arab relations with Israel in exchange for an Israeli peace agreement with the Palestinians, no Israeli government had until now provided an official response. In what likely constituted Israel’s first reaction, 14 years after it was first tabled, Netanyahu declared that while the API included positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians this would necessitate that Arab states make revisions.

Israeli actions do occasionally lead to deteriorations in its regional relations, however these tend to be blips.

Hidden between the lines of the Israeli Prime Minister’s comments is a desire to push Arab states to make concessions that Palestinians are not willing to give – whether on borders or the Jewish character of Israel. At the same time, Israel sees little real need to make painful concessions on the Palestinian issue in order to get from regional states what it already wants, should current dynamics continue. More to the point, there is nothing in these dynamics that seriously challenges Israel’s preference for maintaining the status quo within the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is attempting to reverse the idea that normalisation should be the consequence of a peace agreement with Palestinians. Should there be any doubt, Tony Blair – who has played a role in pushing for an Egyptian-Israeli peace initiative – explained that “provided the Israeli government is ready to commit to a discussion around the Arab peace initiative [...] it would be possible to have some steps of normalisation along the way to give confidence to this process. With the new leadership in the region today, that is possible”.

Given Israel’s history of pocketing concessions and avoiding the path to Palestinian statehood, playing the normalisation card for the sake of yet more meaningless process would be a serious mistake. To not link the development of Arab-Israeli ties to genuine progress towards a two state solution merely affirms Israel’s belief that it can park the Palestinian issue indefinitely while pursuing relations with Arab states that it values. Instead, the Arab League and its members must hold fast to the conditions set out in the Arab Peace Initiative, in particular concerning full regional normalisation on a peace deal with the Palestinians.

If Arab states remain committed to increased cooperation with Israel, they should explore how these growing ties could be leveraged to advance Palestinian sovereignty. This could include discussions with the PLO (and the EU) on what interim steps could be offered short of normalisation in exchange for concrete and irreversible actions by Israel that further the prospect of realising Palestinian statehood.

Arab states could, for instance, consider holding out the offer of Arab League recognition of Israel within its internationally recognised 1967 borders in exchange for Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state based on the long-standing and internationally accepted parameters for resolving the conflict. This could be linked to a package of Israeli/Palestinian confidence building measures, including completion of the third Further Re-Deployment (FRD) on the Israeli side, as envisaged under the 1998 Wye River Agreement and 1999 Sharm El-Sheikh Memorandum in which Israel pledged to transfer territory from Areas C to B to A; to increase Palestinian economic access to Area C; freezing settlement activity and ending demolitions of Palestinian property; as well as allowing for the re-opening of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem and the holding of Palestinian elections there.

Europe should work with Arab states in order for these moves to be accepted by Israel, at least in principle, in order to avoid being sucked into meaningless negotiations. Although Israel would be hard pressed to accept such conditions given its domestic realities, this would at least challenge it to demonstrate real commitment to a two state solution and re-impose a degree of conditionality in its relations with the Arab world.   

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: The Middle East and North Africa, Israel / Palestine

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