By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org , with reporting by Shalle’ McDonald
As part of the latest European effort to spur a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited Israel and the Palestinian territories this week. Valls tried to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that France’s planned multilateral peace initiative—a June 3 meeting in Paris with foreign ministers from 20 countries, but excluding Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as a precursor to a larger summit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the fall—is not an effort to circumvent Israel.
Netanyahu has opposed the French initiative on the grounds that “direct negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions” is the only conceivable way to resolve the longstanding conflict. Yet he voiced more positive sentiments on a separate proposal from Egypt, an Arab country with whom Israel has maintained a fragile peace treaty since 1979.
Led by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt is reportedly planning to hold its own trilateral summit to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal—with the direct involvement of Israeli and Palestinian officials. The initiative follows recent comments by the Egyptian president that he desires to mediate peace talks between rival Palestinian factions in order to subsequently bring about the resumption of Palestinian negotiations with Israel. According to the Palestinian news agency Ma‘an, an Israeli government delegation secretly visited Cairo on May 22 for a meeting with El-Sisi and other Egyptian officials.
Netanyahu said he welcomes El-Sisi’s “willingness to invest every effort to advance a future of peace and security between us and the Palestinians,” though it is unclear how Israel’s participation in any peace initiative will be affected by the prime minister’s nomination of nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s next defense minister—marking a political shift to the right. The deal to add Yisrael Beiteinu to Israel’s Likud party-led governing coalition was signed May 25.
“The French initiative does not appear to be well-intended, because the French initially said that if Israel wouldn’t agree to accept the French conditions, France would support a Palestinian state. So if they already know their bottom-line result, what are the French negotiating for?” Likud Knesset member and counter-terrorism expert Dr. Anat Berko, who recently became the first woman to be appointed to lead the Israeli legislature’s Subcommittee of Intelligence and Secret Services, said.
“Perhaps the French should focus on their own security inside France; it’s a very sensitive and shaky situation and I don’t think they are in a strong position to be negotiating or conducting such a summit,” she said. “For the Palestinians, I think it’s about time they take responsibility and negotiate directly with Israel. The Egyptians helped us before with the Hamas organization and even to release [Hamas captive] Gilad Shalit [in 2011]. We appreciate the good intention of President El-Sisi, and I am sure that [the Egyptians] will be helpful. In the end, we need to negotiate directly with the Palestinians, even though they are trying to bring upon international pressure toward Israel through the U.N.”
Elliott Abrams, a former national security official in the George W. Bush administration, said that one of Egypt’s major interests in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to allow the Arab state to be more open about its security relations with Israel.
“Egypt’s other interest today is fighting jihadis in the Sinai and stopping the development of a Hamas-jihadi relationship. They may believe that a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas would make Hamas less likely to have close relations with groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda,” Abrams said.
Though he doesn’t believe that El-Sisi ultimately has enough political clout to successfully mediate between Hamas (which governs Gaza) and Fatah (the ruling party in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority), Abrams argues that Egypt could be helpful by endorsing political concessions from Palestinian leaders and by pushing for reconciliation gestures toward Israel from other Arab states. He echoed Berko’s view that the French peace initiative is unlikely to succeed because many Israelis distrust Europe and believe that a number of the continent’s leaders are biased against Israel.
Aaron David Miller, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former advisor to both Republican and Democratic U.S. secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, said that peace summits are typically good for either beginning a credible peace process or concluding one. He cited the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, which similarly attempted to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, as an example of a conference that achieved some non-transformational starting goals. In terms of concluding negotiations, he said the best example is the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.
“The question that anyone has to ask themselves is…[whether] the French initiative ticks into either box. I would argue the answer right now is probably not. I don’t see how this particular process launches a serious and credible process of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians under the current circumstances,” Miller said, pointing to how the Palestinian movement is unlikely to depart in any way from its typical negotiating positions, a situation that Israel’s newly revamped government is unlikely to accept.
Further, Miller cautioned that Egypt’s proposal also wouldn’t necessarily fit into either “box,” particularly because he doesn’t see Hamas and Fatah as willing or able to unify as a national Palestinian movement with a cohesive strategy.
“I don’t think El-Sisi can get through the first phase—negotiating the [Palestinian] unity. We’ve had at least three efforts of this since 2007, and they’ve all failed,” he said.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on May 24 denied reports of Egypt’s planned trilateral summit. But even if the summit does take place, said Miller, “the Arabs will demand a price for direct negotiation with Israel, and the price will be Israeli moves—either a comprehensive settlement freeze or agreement to borders—which I don’t see this [Israeli] government being able or even wanting to agree to.”
Malcolm Hoenlein—executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a 50-member umbrella body whose leaders met with El-Sisi in Cairo in February 2016—also discounted the possibility of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, but expressed more faith in El-Sisi’s “leverage” in the region.
“The process could certainly begin and El-Sisi could serve as a helpful facilitator,” Hoenlein said. El-Sisi “doesn’t see himself as a substitute for direct negotiations…the only thing that will lead to results,” while by contrast France’s summit grants Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a “diversion” and an “incentive not to negotiate” directly with Israel, he said.
Yet Zvi Mazel, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 1996-2001 and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank, said Israel should take the Egyptian proposal with a grain of salt. Ultimately, Egypt’s plan doesn’t change the fact that the Palestinians “have had so many opportunities to create a state [beginning] from the [1947 U.N.] partition plan, [and] they refused to create their own country alongside a Jewish state—that’s the problem,” Mazel said.
Mazel and Miller agreed that for Israel, the U.S. is a better broker for Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations than either France or Egypt. Miller pointed out that every breakthrough in the conflict during the last 40 years has involved the U.S. at some phase, while Mazel noted that Europe and European policies are becoming increasingly pro-Palestinian.
But while presumptive U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has claimed she would veto any U.N. Security Council resolution against Israel if she were elected president in November, there has been speculation that President Barack Obama—who has had a stormy relationship with Netanyahu over the years—could back such a resolution during the remainder of his term until January 2017.
A senior State Department official said this week that the Obama administration is skeptical about Netanyahu’s call for direct negotiations with the Palestinians, telling the Jerusalem Post that while the U.S. supports “meaningful negotiations,” it doesn’t “believe in negotiations just for the sake of negotiations.”
Miller said that for Israel, “Saying ‘no’ [to peace talks] repeatedly is probably not smart….Getting yourself involved in saying ‘yes, but’ in a process that has no future may not be smart either.”
“Netanyahu has to figure out a way to say ‘yes, but’ if he wants in some degree avert or preempt international pressure….He’s definitely made the calculation to look beyond Barack Obama, and he’s hoping to find a friendlier face in Washington in January in 2017,” Miller said.