Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday that if the Netanyahu government agrees to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of the Arab peace initiative, Arab states would be willing to take steps to normalize their relations with Israel in parallel to such negotiations.
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Together with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, Blair has been trying in recent weeks to promote a regional initiative in order to pave the way for the Zionist Union’s joining the Netanyahu government.
In a conference in London on Tuesday, Blair said that there’s a chance, under the present circumstances in the Middle East, that Arab countries would be willing to be more flexible in framing the outlines of their initiative and take normalization steps while Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were underway, rather than waiting for a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Provided the Israeli government is ready to commit to a discussion around the Arab peace initiative ... it would be possible to have some steps of normalization along the way to give confidence to this process. With the new leadership in the region today that is possible. A lot will depend on the response of the Israeli government to President Sissi’s initiative and to the Arab peace initiative, and to whatever steps the Israelis are ready to take,” he said.
Blair said that due to the deep distrust between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership and the difficult political constraints under which the two sides are operating, active involvement by Arab states in the process is a key to its success.
“We need to broaden the support base for the peace process We need the help of the region. The door between Israel and the Arab states is now closed and the key is progress with the Palestinians.”
Despite the optimism Blair is exhibiting in his talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog and other international agencies regarding the possibility of achieving a breakthrough between Israel and Arab states, senior Western diplomats who have talked to Blair recently have expressed doubts regarding his assessments and the chances of his initiative bearing fruit. They think that the rules of the game have not changed – Arab states will consider warmer relations with Israel only if it agrees to take significant steps that it has refused to take since 2009.
Even though Blair ended his role as the Quartet’s representative in the Middle East several months ago, he has continued to operate independently in an effort to promote the renewal of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and the Arab world. In recent months Blair has been in Israel and other countries in the region every two-three weeks, meeting with Netanyahu on almost every occasion, as well as with opposition leader Herzog, updating them on his talks with Arab leaders. The constant message he bears is that there is a willingness and preparedness in Sunni Arab states to bring about a breakthrough in relations with Israel, but that this depends on taking steps in the West Bank and Gaza that would demonstrate Israel’s seriousness in striving for a two-state solution.
Over the past two months, especially to the backdrop of understandings reached by Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon with regard to the biennial budget, Blair realized that the Israeli government would remain stable until 2019. Blair believed that the only way to promote a diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians in which Arab states are also involved would be to bring the Zionist Union into the coalition.
Blair embarked on talks with Netanyahu and Herzog in an attempt to create a common agenda for them, aimed at promoting a regional process that would begin after the Zionist Union joined the coalition. Blair’s activity was the backdrop for Herzog’s comments about “a rare regional opportunity” to promote the peace process.
A week before the negotiations between Herzog and Netanyahu blew up, Blair went to Cairo and held talks with senior officials, in an attempt to recruit them to support this move. A political figure says that it was Blair who suggested that Sissi would give a speech, with a message to the Israeli public and to Israeli parties about the need to advance the peace process with the Palestinians. According to this source, Blair’s interaction with the Egyptian president’s bureau was completely coordinated with Herzog and Netanyahu.
If the chances for implementing Blair and Sissi’s initiative were slim to begin with, the failed negotiations between Herzog and Netanyahu, the entry of Yisrael Beiteinu into the coalition and the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister made these chances even more remote. Netanyahu has been saying in recent days that he’s still interested in trying to promote this initiative, declaring almost daily that the new expanded coalition will commit to trying to resume negotiations. Netanyahu even spoke to the Egyptian president by phone last week, telling him that Lieberman’s inclusion in the coalition would not hamper efforts to try and find a breakthrough.