The speech Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi gave to open Sunday’s donor conference for the reconstruction of Gaza was one of the most important speeches any Arab leader has given in recent years. His remarks to the Cairo conference, in which he urged Israel to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative and move toward establishing a Palestinian state, were addressed firstly to the Israeli public, and only secondly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
- Gaza Conference Set to Begin — Minus Israel
- Donors Pledge $5.4 Billion in Gaza Aid
- Springboard for Sissi to Top of Arab Pyramid?
- Sissi Burst the Bubble
Sissi demonstrated sensitivity to the average Israeli’s skepticism about the peace process, but also reminded Israelis of what the Arab Peace Initiative – which successive Israeli governments have refused to take seriously ever since it was unveiled in 2002 – actually contains. Sissi’s message to Israeli public opinion was that there is a partner for peace, and that progress toward Palestinian statehood will include peace treaties, diplomatic relations and normalization with a large portion of the Arab world.
But Sissi’s speech was also a message to Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and all the other ministers who have been fantasizing recently about a peace process that bypasses the Palestinians and involves no Israeli concessions – one in which Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco would establish ties and do business even as the occupation and the settlements continue in the West Bank.
Sissi reminded Netanyahu that there are no free lunches or end-of-season bargains in the peace process. If Netanyahu wants to continue conducting relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan under the table, via senior defense and intelligence officials, as he does now, fine. But if he wants normal relations, he must understand that the road to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Amman passes through Ramallah.
Sissi has few allies in Israel’s current government. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni explained to anyone who would listen on Sunday that his refusal to invite Israel to the Cairo conference is a reflection of the country’s deteriorating diplomatic situation. “They simply didn’t want us there,” she said. “There was an event at which they talked about the State of Israel and it wasn’t present, and that’s very bad.”
Livni aims her criticism at Prime Minister Netanyahu: "Some people are selling us the idea that it is important to cooperate with the Arab world, but the same people are not ready to do what it takes when it comes to the peace process. Without serious negotiations with the Palestinians there's no chance Israel will get full, real and meaningful cooperation with Arab states."
But the importance of Sissi’s speech lay not only in the content, but in the speaker. Since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan, no Arab leader has been more popular with both Israel’s government and its own people than Sissi.
For many Israelis, the fact that he rose to power in a military coup, and is not that concerned with liberal democratic values, works not against him but on the contrary in his favor.
Sissi isn’t Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who accuses Israel of genocide and war crimes in Gaza. He’s not Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who says Israel’s actions in Gaza were worse than Hitler’s during the Holocaust. He’s not even King Abdullah of Jordan, whose regime’s stability is regularly questioned by Israeli ministers and defense officials.
On the right, the center and most of the left, from politicians to generals to diplomats to ordinary people in the street, Israelis see Sissi as a loyal ally with whom they can do business on various mutual interests. They view him as a strong ruler who is restoring order in Egypt, upholding the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and fighting Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. Thus when Sissi speaks, Israelis – from the cabinet on down – are more likely to listen.
The question is whether he will actively advance the policy he advocated on Sunday or whether it was a one-time event. One of his predecessors, Hosni Mubarak, visited Israel only once in 30 years, for former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. Will Sissi dare to come to Jerusalem to pursue peace? We can only hope.