Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not serious about the peace process and Israel does not fully grasp the changes in U.S. policy toward Iran - these are two of the central conclusions of a conference on regional security and foreign policy, co-sponsored by the Washington-based Center for American Progress and by the Israeli-based Molad, a Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.
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The event, held Tuesday in Jerusalem, marked the first public collaboration between CAP, a progressive think tank and policy analysis group that was established in 2003 and is closely allied with the Obama administration, and Molad, a similarly left-wing think tank and policy analysis group that established in 2012, and is dedicated, according to its website, to “developing a comprehensive vision for the State of Israel that is equitable and seeks peaceful integration of Israel into its geopolitical environment.”
The conference was conducted against the backdrop of the crisis in the peace negotiations that had developed over the day: Israel issued 700 new tenders for housing units in Jerusalem neighborhoods over the Green Line as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ announced the renewal of Palestinian efforts to join international conventions, and as, in response, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s cancelled his planned visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah.
In an opening address, opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) strongly denounced the policies of the current government and promised to provide an alternative leadership.
During the first panel, which addressed the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, speakers largely agreed with each other that, “For a peace process to succeed,” as Molad director Avner Inbar explained, “it is necessary that the leadership on both sides negotiate in good faith and want them to succeed. Although Netanyahu is genuinely concerned about isolation and demography, he believes that the current status quo is the best option.”
There was a similar consensus that Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is little more than a cynical move intended to stall or derail the talks. “What surprises me,” said Daniel Levy, Director of the MENA program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “is that neither the U.S., nor the Israeli public, nor the European Union have stated this openly or acted accordingly.”
The United States and the European Union should be putting pressure on Israel not to merely prolong the peace process, but to actually negotiate toward peace, the panelists concluded.
“Europe is constantly thickening and deepening its relationship with Israel,” Levy observed. “So neither the Israelis nor Netanyahu himself are sufficiently discouraged."
While repeatedly emphasizing the need for “new options,” “alternatives,” and “challenges to the status quo,” the panelists were unable to present concrete suggestions. And while maintaining that the Israeli public remains essentially in favor of a two-state solution, they were unable to articulate a way to appeal to the security fears and hopes for peace held by large percentages of the so-called “soft right constituency,” which, although voting for right-wing parties, would support a peace process.
The second panel brought together Israeli and U.S. experts on Iran. According to Heather Hurlburt, a Senior National Security Fellow at Human Rights First, Israeli policy toward Iran seems to ignore the fact that in the United States there is “broad, bipartisan agreement that with Iran, we are no longer dealing with enrichment. That ship has already sailed. We are now talking about the break-out time framework, which...will probably be about 12 months. Even a good, durable agreement is not the end of the conversation about Iran, especially about managing Iran in the future. The question is, how do we want to conduct the Israeli-U.S. relationship so that it transcends Iran’s nuclear program and doesn’t become its first victim?”
Noting Israel’s objection to agreements with Iran, Helit Barel, Board Member and former CEO of the Israeli Council for Peace and Security, observed that “Israeli’s categorically negative position has some value as an outlier position that challenges the establishment.” However, she cautioned, that position is so negative “that it may become irrelevant, leaving Israel completely isolated.”