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Netanyahu and the Palestinian Conundrum

Viewpoints, July 2016
Dr. Leslie Susser

Dr. Leslie Susser

Over the past several months, as pressure mounts to move on the Palestinian track and the US signals impending contraction of its Middle East footprint, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been moving to reshape Israel’s foreign relations.

His strategy is to create what he calls “islands of stability” in a chaotic region, deflect international pressure on the Palestinian track and extend the reach of Israel’s economic and foreign policy options.

By “islands of stability” Netanyahu means robust Israeli relations with other Middle Eastern players which by their very existence add a measure of regional stability. For example, in late January he consolidated a tripartite alliance between Israel, Greece and Cyprus; in mid-June, after a six-year rift, he concluded a reconciliation agreement with Turkey; and quietly behind the scenes, he has also been cultivating ties with the moderate Arab Sunni countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, based largely on a shared interest in containing the common threat posed by Iran and ISIS.

The Arab League meets in Cairo in May: Netanyahu has been deliberately ambivalent towards the Arab peace plan. Credit: UN News Center

The Arab League meets in Cairo in May: Netanyahu has been deliberately ambivalent towards the Arab peace plan. Credit: UN News Center

The big question remains: Whether Netanyahu’s maneuvering is aimed at putting in place regional conditions for resolving the Palestinian conflict or whether it is meant to create a regional substitute for the two-state solution and in so doing deflect international pressure to move on the Palestinian track.

Earlier this year, the Quartet’s former special Mid-East envoy, Tony Blair, worked assiduously, with Netanyahu’s approval, for a regional peace conference that would focus both on formalizing Israel’s ties with the Sunni states and kick-starting peace talks with the Palestinians. The Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, which promises normalization between Israel and the entire Muslim world once a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is concluded, was widely touted as the basis for new peace talks on both tracks.

“Netanyahu’s strategy is to create what he calls “islands of stability” in a chaotic region”

Netanyahu, however, has been deliberately ambivalent. On the one hand, he backed the idea of a regional peace conference and had good things to say about the API, intimating that it could provide terms of reference for wide-ranging peace talks.

But in the same breath he insisted that it would have to be amended before Israel could accept it. “We are ready to negotiate with the Arab states on updating the initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes that have taken place in our region since 2002, but preserves the agreed goal of two states for two peoples,” he declared in late May.

In Netanyahu’s view the “dramatic changes” since 2002 have two major territorial consequences: Given the chaos in Syria, there is no way Israel should be urged to return the Golan Heights and, given the rise of militant Islamic radicalism, it should be allowed to maintain an IDF presence in the West Bank as a security buffer against potential threats from ISIS and other fundamentalist militias. In mid-June Netanyahu told Likud government ministers that that under no circumstances would he accept the API as is. That could leave the regional conference idea in cold storage.

Indeed, if Israel does not accept the API, Netanyahu’s support for a regional peace conference looks like rhetorical readiness only, no more than a ploy to sugar-coat his rejection of the rival French initiative by arguing that he is actively involved in something else.

Netanyahu seems to be making a number of flawed assumptions:

  • That the Arab states, to further their ties with Israel, might pressure the Palestinians to be more amenable. On the contrary, the Arab states are unlikely to make any overt moves towards Israel unless there is significant progress on the Palestinian track.
  • That the “islands of stability,” Israel’s burgeoning ties with Asian giants China, Japan and India, and its closer cooperation with Russia can offset the potential loss of Western diplomatic and economic support. They wouldn’t even come close.
  • That with nimble diplomatic footwork the occupation can be maintained indefinitely.

As the occupation enters its 50th year, pressure to end it is likely to gain unprecedented momentum.

Netanyahu claims to be committed to the two-state solution – which would indeed open Israel’s ties to the Arab world and secure unlimited credit with the international community. But his actions suggest his true goal is to maintain the status quo. The onus is on him to prove otherwise.

Dr. Leslie Susser has covered Middle East peacemaking from the Begin-Sadat breakthrough in the late 1970s to the present day.