Netanyahu Accepts Egyptian Request for Israel to Stay Away of Gaza Donor Conference

Foreign Ministry decries Jerusalem’s absence, but Benjamin Netanyahu acquiesces.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Members of the Palestinian security officers secure the area before PM Hamdallah tours the destroyed houses in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, October 9, 2014.
Members of the Palestinian security officers secure the area before PM Hamdallah tours the destroyed houses in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, October 9, 2014.Credit: AP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

A month and a half after the Gaza war, a donors conference on rebuilding the Strip is convened in Cairo on Sunday— without Israel’s presence. Egyptian officials had feared that many Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, would cancel if they knew an Israeli would attend.

The foreign ministers of 30 countries were due to show up. But not Israel, based on a silent understanding between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Egyptian presidency.

A senior Israeli official said that for weeks President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s office had sent the message that the Israelis would not be invited; the Egyptians asked Jerusalem to show some understanding.

Since the Gulf states are expected to pay for most of the reconstruction project, Israel’s attendance could scuttle the event, officials in Cairo said.

The Egyptians added that if Israel accepted an invitation to Cairo, the Palestinians would cancel.

They noted that less than two weeks ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the UN General Assembly that Israel had carried out “genocide” in Gaza and called for the prosecution of senior Israeli officials for war crimes. It was thus deemed far-fetched that Palestinians could sit at the same table with Israelis at a conference on repairing damage caused by the Israel Defense Forces.

The senior Israeli official said a number of discussions were held on whether Jerusalem should insist on attending the conference. Foreign Ministry officials said the Egyptian government should be pressured into extending an invitation, adding that because the conference would discuss issues that affected Israel, Jerusalem had to be there.

They said Israel’s absence would send the international community the message that Israel was willing to quietly accept being excluded. They said that at a time when the Israeli prime minister was telling the UN General Assembly that he wanted to cooperate with the Arab states to advance the peace process with the Palestinians, Israel had a clear interest in attending a donors conference.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides thought differently. According to the senior official, the Prime Minister’s Office decided to accept the Egyptian request; it told Cairo it would not be upset if Israel were not invited to the conference.

"The message from Netanyahu's office to the Egyptians was that Israel understands the situation and the sensitivity, and will not place any pressure on them to be invited," said the Israeli official.

The conference will be a diplomatic test for Sissi, who is to make the keynote address on Sunday. It will be the biggest international gathering in Egypt since he entered office in June. Speakers at the conference will include Abbas, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Other participants are expected to include outgoing EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton; Italy’s Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, who will replace Ashton in November; the foreign minister of Norway, which heads the group of donor nations to the PA; the foreign ministers of more than 10 EU member states and of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.

The conference is expected to raise more than $1.5 billion for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. The PA is to submit a reconstruction proposal more than 80 pages long and with an estimated cost exceeding $4 billion. The United States is expected to pledge $118 million, while pledges of a few hundred million dollars are expected from EU states. But most of the money will be supplied by the Gulf states.

While the focus is the reconstruction of Gaza, the main focus of Kerry’s visit is to persuade Abbas to postpone or change his decision to submit to the UN Security Council a resolution saying Israel must withdraw from the West Bank within two years.

“The Palestinians have spoken about an initiative that includes a lot of things that I think would be very destabilizing over there. And so we’re hoping to channel that into a more positive direction,” a senior Obama administration official said at a media briefing this weekend.

What might that “more positive direction” be? The U.S. official said that in his speech at the Cairo conference, Kerry is expected to talk about the need to address the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only the rebuilding of Gaza.

“The secretary will say that the United States remains committed to seeking a negotiated two-state solution. I think you will hear the secretary reaffirm our willingness to reengage in the negotiations and help facilitate successful negotiations if the parties are willing to make the difficult decisions as necessary to get back to talks,” the official said.

But despite the efforts of Kerry and his aides to convey optimism, it’s hard to imagine him halting the deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Abbas is determined to introduce his unilateral measure at the United Nations, and to stop him the Americans would have to offer a worthy alternative.

Even if Kerry were willing to consider such options, it’s not clear the White House, which has lost its faith in the sincerity of both Netanyahu and Abbas, would give him the green light.

But more than anything, it’s hard to see how Kerry could achieve the renewal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Neither party is willing to pay the political price.

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